The End of Modernism
Rationalization, Spectacle, and Laughter
The First World War, as writers, historians, and other scholars of culture have persuaded us, marked a radical divide in the experience of millions of Europeans, altering forever how they saw themselves, their fellow men and women, and the forms of collective power at once frighteningly remote and dangerously proximate to the most intimate dimensions of life. Many of the crucial changes brought about by the war impose themselves on the eye, from the large-scale corporate reorganization of the economy and the state to meet the needs of reconstruction, to highly personal shifts in the relations of the sexes and corresponding ideas of masculinity and femininity. Less evident, and hence less well documented, however, is the intricate rhythm with which these changes interacted, reinforcing and canceling one another in sudden volumes and voids over the entire period from the armistice until the full-scale return to war with Dunkirk and the London Blitz. The influence of the war, much more fluid and fieldlike than is often appreciated, by no means touched only on the traumatized participants in the war effort, nor did it last only through the years of reconstruction, when the home economies and institutions sought to absorb the turbulent force of weary, embittered, shell-shocked armies, whether victorious or defeated.
In focusing on the role of trench warfare in shaping "modern memory," Paul Fussell's classic study of war writing brought to light the Great War's subjective logic: the tragic lag in culture that sent young men to war armed with late Victorian conceptions and brought them
back into a peacetime society with a psychic armor, thrown up in the trenches, permanently raised. For extreme cases like the trench poet Ivor Gurney, history had lost all boundaries. It was all war, everywhere; he died in 1937 in a mental asylum, convinced that the fighting was still going on outside. Late modernism, however, lies both a step back from and a step beyond such extremity, in the tributary channels by which memories and experiences of the war were transmitted from participants to readers and from generation to generation. The passages back to this collective catastrophe are more devious, often interrupted and difficult to retrace. But one key late modernist writer has left a broken but still discernible trail connecting late modernism to its generarive matrix in the years of war: Wyndham Lewis. For Lewis, the Great War retained its dreadful echo well into the 1930s, when the rising tensions between European nations had once again made mass slaughter present to the imagination of intellectuals and populace alike. It is thus with Lewis's war memoirs, Blasting and Bombardiering , published only two years before Hitler's invasion of Poland, that I begin.
In the introduction to Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), Lewis divides the twentieth century into three historical "segments"—the War, the Post-War, and the post-Post-War: "The War is such a tremendous landmark that locally it imposes itself upon our computations of time like the birth of Christ. We say 'pre-war' and 'post-war,' rather as we say B.C. or A.D . . . . I find a good way of dating after the War is to take the General Strike, 1926, as the next milestone. Then began a period of a new complexion. It was no longer 'post-war.' We needn't call it anything. It's just the period we're living in today." As we later discover, this periodization reflects Lewis's own career, which he takes to be exemplary. As a painter and as the explosive charge behind the journal Blast , Lewis was central to the pre-World War I avant-garde. Yet the war and its aftermath, he suggests, opened a hiatus in his career. Lewis had gained public notoriety for his vorticist paintings, for Blast , and for his debut novel Tarr (first version, 1918). But after Tarr , he writes, "I buried myself. I disinterred myself in 1926, the year of the General Strike—but as a philosopher and critic. This was considered very confusing." Similarly, despite early successes, Lewis's work as a novelist would really only take off after this period of "hibernation," which was of decisive importance for his later career.
Although in many ways idiosyncratic, Lewis could in one crucial respect claim to represent a broader current. Older in years and artistic tenure than many writers starting out in the 1920s, Lewis, like them, nonetheless had to begin his career (over) in the changed circumstances of the "postwar?' Lewis's colleagues like Joyce and Eliot (both noncombatants in World War I), whom he had initially outstripped in artistic initiative, had in the early twenties rapidly achieved worldwide fame as the avatars of a new age in literature. Their works became a standard against which others, whether for or against modernist writing, defined themselves. Lewis, who never gained anything like their notoriety, considered himself artistically at least their equal and in many respects their superior. Yet he too found himself, much to his displeasure, in the ranks of those writing in the shadow of Ulysses and The Waste Land .
The war and its immediate literary aftermath gave contemporaries the strong impression of a historical turning point, which they interpreted in a number of contradictory ways. In England, for example, widely accepted historicocultural myths emerged: "the old men" who had wantonly sacrificed the younger generation to hold on to power in the boardroom and bedroom; the tragic "death of old England" (a pastoral fox-hunting preserve, laid waste by modernity); and a fatal decline attributed to "the missing generation" of frontline soldiers, England's best-and-brightest having been (allegedly) killed off in the trenches. The young Americans who came to Europe tended to see the postwar condition more positively than their English counterparts: a liberation from the strictures of puritanical America and the discovery of community, fun, sexual freedom, abundant drink, and literary fame on the Continent. In either case, however, the five years after the end of the war formed a historical parenthesis of sorts, beyond which, as Lewis put it, a "period of a new complexion began." Those writers who wished to extend the modernist legacy beyond this point indeed re-created it in the image of illustrious forbears, following their example and competing with their achievements. Yet by the late twenties, they had also come to realize that the modernist's goal of a "legendary translation of external life" (Baudelaire) faced peculiar challenges that their forerunners had not experienced.
As the twenties passed, postwar modernists became increasingly aware of the difference between themselves and their now-famous predecessors. The early period of modernism, from about 1910 to 1918, had been especially characterized by two polar extremes. On the one hand, some modernist writers strongly asserted the autonomy of art
from social norms. The value of works lay in formal originality, which in turn was an index of the individual author's craft, vision, awareness, and labor. On the other hand, the first, heady phase of avant-garde activity had burst onto the scene with cubism, futurism, expressionism, vorticism, and early dadaism. For all their differences, which they heightened in combat with one another, these groups shared their collective orientation, which in some cases even evolved into a kind of anonymity for individual artists and writers. It is only to the specialist's eye that the differences between the analytic cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque appear; likewise, the dadaists relished the polemical negation of individual style in their use of ready-made materials and chance.
The tremendous energy of modernism's first phase lay not only in the turbulent force of individual movements and voices but also in the tense interplay between different components of its field, the thrilling sense of a powerful, all-sided development of the arts. The more the combat within the modernist field escalated, so it seemed, the more productive the arts would become. This fortuitous convergence of forces, however, had serious limits. The enormous heave forward in the arts had been contingent on the rapid transnational communication of ideas and personnel in the years before World War I and on the vigorous assimilation of new technologies and scientific theories in popularized, triumphalist ways. The ritualized belligerence of prewar modernism was rendered more earnest, however, by the bloody national conflict that engulfed Europe. By the immediate postwar years, the movement had already begun to show signs of drift, neoclassical reaction, and nationalist or provincialist obstacles to new ideas. A cunning dialectic had seized the process of stylistic innovation, confronting the writer with historical limits and threatening to exhaust modernism's dynamic from within. At the same time, external events impinged on the arts and their practitioners.
Following World War I, modernism's resistance to integration by extra-artistic institutions eroded from two sides. Modernist artists were actively challenged by the politicized avant-gardes (i.e., dada, surrealism, Russian constructivism) and also by new forms of culture with direct social utility (modern typography and design, photojournalism, cinema, jazz and revue culture, etc.). An emblematic encounter is the Berlin dadaists' blisteringly sarcastic attack on the painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had complained that machine-gun fire during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin had damaged a painting gallery. With their
radical politics and skepticism about anything but a throwaway culture, the Berlin dadaists could almost welcome the machine gunning of painting and certainly rated a few lost paintings very low against a lost revolution. Both trends—the politicization of the avant-gardes and the devaluation of the traditional arts—impelled artists to rethink their practice and reinvent the functions, forms, and contexts of artworks. The political avant-gardes noisily asserted the duty of artists to intervene—as artistic producers, not private citizens—in social life, while the new media took on a centrality that even the most popular artist had never imagined. Modernism's radical autonomy appeared increasingly fragile, increasingly difficult to sustain, in the face of these new historical pressures.
Even if modernists could disdain or ignore these trends, however, they were faced with another difficulty: a slackening of the critical tension between modernist art forms and modern society. Modernism itself had found a certain scurrilous success, or at least some of its representatives, more or less worthy of the rifle, had achieved popular notoriety. The high calling of art that the modernists professed to follow had fallen prey to fashion and proven susceptible to banalization and vulgarizing imitation. Wyndham Lewis bitterly satirized the "apes of god" playing at bohemian existence, buying up fashionably humble studios in the artists' quarters at prices far beyond the means of struggling artists. Others, like Djuna Barnes, resorted to stealth and travel to maintain their distinction:
Djuna Barnes, author of Ryder , returned to Montparnasse for a glimpse and fled to Vienna. . . .
"Montparnasse," she said, "has ceased to exist. There is nothing left but a big crowd."
As the fashion took hold, the cafés of Paris became more crowded with tourists seeking a look at the "lost generation" than with the writers and artists who ostensibly made up the spectacle. The myth of modernism regarded itself in public, while the authentic item conducted its business elsewhere, often in obscurity and poverty.
As these writers discovered, however, such efforts to preserve a creative island from the vulgar could succeed all too well. Fashion was fickle, but isolation had drawbacks as well—and might last indefinitely. Late modernist writers were forced to come to terms with this predicament, not merely as the given context in which they worked, but indeed as the conscious point of departure for their art. The detached stance and styl-
istic rigor of later modernist writing continued to put the crowd at a distance. Yet the heroism of this gesture, common to modernist writers from Baudelaire to Joyce, had become grimly farcical, as it revealed a social automatism controlling the artist presumably its master.
Through the new array of modernist literary techniques, Fredric Jameson has argued, the fractured experience of individual subjects in the age of imperialism could be transformed into the building blocks of formally dazzling works of art. Yet by transfiguring the private world in this way, such works serve to evade the historical or political situation that lies beyond the rarefied zones of inner feeling and thought: "The perfected poetic apparatus of high modernism represses History just as successfully as the perfected narrative apparatus of high realism did the random heterogeneity of the as yet uncentered subject. At that point, however, the political, no longer visible in the high modernist texts, any more than in the everyday world of bourgeois life, and relentlessly driven underground by accumulated reification, has at last become a genuine Unconscious." Jameson contrasts this radical repression of history with the still-"leaky" forms of the protomodernist romancier Joseph Conrad. In Conrad's works, he argues, history juts through the very literary forms meant to hold the world of aggravated political struggle at bay. Late modernism, two decades later, once again loosens the modernist dominance of form and allows a more fluid, dialogic relation with the immediate historical context. It accomplished this unbind-ing of the work at the cost of abandoning the modernist gold standard: form as the universal currency in which aesthetic value could be measured and circulated.
Writing politically committed literature represented one obvious and, to many, attractive way for writers to break out of their evident predicament. For a brief but fascinating period, writers as diverse as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, George Orwell, and Rex Warner (only to mention major British writers) found ways of holding in tension political and literary demands. They allowed these often-contradictory strains to play themselves out in challenging, enduring works of poetry and fiction. Yet despite the general sense of the thirties as a highly politicized decade, many other important writers of the period could not and did not link their writing to the vicissitudes of political engagement. Retrospectively, and especially from the perspective of the postcommunist present, it is necessary to reexamine without prejudice our ideas about this "noncommittal" stance, and above all, as itself being a kind of political choice. It is possible to see in the
late modernists' "choice not to choose" something other than the simple dichotomy of engagement versus escapism. In a preface to his belated war chronicle/epic poem In Parenthesis , which appeared alongside Wyndham Lewis's war memoir Blasting and Bombardiering in 1937, the Welsh poet David Jones explicates his title as a rebus of his deep perplexity about where to stand as a writer in the postwar world. Jones explains that he called his book In Parenthesis because it was written "in a kind of space between—I don't know between quite what—but as you turn aside to do something." Jones's title is also significant, "because for us amateur soldiers (and especially for the writer, who was not only amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade's despair) the war was a parenthesis . . . and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis." Jones's sense of being betwixt and between two catastrophically opposed camps, massed for battle, captures something of a mood shared to a greater or lesser extent by many writers of these years.
Late modernist writers in no way ignored their social context; in fact, they were deeply troubled by their inability to keep it at a manageable distance. Their literary structures tottered uneasily between vexed acknowledgment and anxious disavowal of social facts, suggesting that their relation to history was far more complex than that of simple "repression." Indeed, if we wanted to carry out the psychic metaphor of Jameson's "political unconscious," which presupposes that narrative forms efficaciously limit the impact of history on literature, for late modernism we would have to speak of a failure to repress, a failure of the forms to contain the turbulent historical energies that sweep through late modernist works. These works are perforated and torn by their relation to history, which is here occulted beneath a dense textual tangle and there exposed in transparent allusion and bald polemic. These writers recognized the demands that the "external" world made on the "homemade" world of their art, yet they lent little credence to the current politico-aesthetic responses. This lack of credible options, however, left them all the more aware of their nakedness before the social facts. Reflecting on their own practice, they discerned in the evolution of modern writing disturbing changes in the ways in which literature was produced and read. Yet unable to formulate any radical alternative to the modernist legacy within which they continued to work, they labored to tunnel through it, undermining and leaving it behind in a painstaking pursuit of literary "failure"—isolated, furtive, and uncertain of allies.
The decade following World War I saw an unprecedented rationalization of social life in Europe and the United States, the subordination of previously distinct spheres to impersonal or collective aims. The systematic and active organization of society by the state, a process greatly intensified by the need to mobilize human and material resources for the war and again by the economic crisis of 1929, was experienced by many artists as an encroachment on their authenticity and autonomy, a devaluation of their individual experience. Their apparent loss of priority called for a response, for a renegotiated connection of experience and value, for new ways of creating artworks and of living the artist's life.
Just after the war, in his well-known address "Science as Vocation," Max Weber confronted the radicalized students' demands for "community" and "personality" and drew the implications for German intellectual life of the American-style rationalization of the university currently in train. Understood in the context of cultural trends extending beyond the university, his penultimate paragraph sounds peculiarly like a manifesto for high modernism, a refocusing of values on the personal experience and awareness of an individual thinker, obeying "the demon who holds the fibers of his very life":
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world? Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo , that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma , which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to "invent" a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. An academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.
The whole modernist gambit is here in nuce . Weber's ideal producer of culture turns toward the intimate and private as an appropriate—indeed, as the sole appropriate—response to the present social situation, displacing politics onto questions of technique and commitment to
one's calling. He rejects any "inauthentic" dialogue of the artist with public trends and projects a merely possible community, now necessarily highly restricted, which would grow out of the "authentic" relation of artist or thinker to his own work in progress.
One common tendency among modernist artists was indeed to accept social rationalization as fate. Shortly before he acceded to the directorship of the Bauhaus in 1930, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe concluded an address to the Werkbund in Vienna with the following remarks:
The new age is a fact; it exists independently of whether we say "yes" or "no" to it.
But it is neither better nor worse than any other age. It is purely an established fact and intrinsically indifferent to values. . . .
Let us accept as a fact the changed economic and social conditions.
All these things take their preordained and value-blind course.
Mies goes on to argue that the problem of values thus becomes crucial and that artists must strive to set new values. Yet in pursuing this goal, in seeking an adequate response to the cold facts of social rationalization, many artists drew different conclusions than did Weber. Whereas Weber set up the lonely researcher as hero, these artists attempted to relate their work positively to the rationalization process, thus shifting attention away from individual, subjective experience in favor of precise production and representation of objects . This general orientation toward the object embraced such different projects as the pedagogy and design work of the Bauhaus, the architecture of Le Corbusier, the broad efforts of Soviet constructivism and productivism, and the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany after the stabilization in the mid-1920s. A 1923 collaboration between the Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the artist Lyubov Popova, The Earth in Turmoil , can serve here as an emblematic, if somewhat hyperbolic, example. Popova's stage setting incorporated a number of real objects as props, including "a coffin, a red pall, a small machine gun, bicycles, weapons, a field kitchen, 3 field telephones, one camp bed, one field pack, one large table, maps, z typewriters, z aeroplanes." Cinematic technology, with its means to render objects in motion with photographic exactitude, also played a notable role in the staging. Popova employed a three-dimensional screen, a film projector, a film camera, films, slides, and Vertov's landmark film, Kino Pravda . This engagement with real mechanical objects and new media technologies, however, was charac-
teristic not just of constructivist theater but of all major spheres of constructivist culture, ranging from reportage literature to industrial design to graphic art. Sergei Tretiakov, one of the strongest advocates of "factographic" reportage and the fusion of book and newspaper as a new collective art form, went so far as to call for a new type of literature about objects, "biographies of things": "Books like Wood, Cereal, Iron, Flax, Cotton, Paper, Locomotive, Business have not yet been written. We need them." In architecture and design-oriented art outside Soviet Russia, the object-sphere was granted similar privilege; here too, likewise, photographic and other reproduction processes were incorporated into artistic production. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, most of these movements assumed some form of capitalism as the social frame for their work. Nevertheless, they substituted function for expression and affirmed an ethics of work and technique, giving a generally social-democratic and industrial cast to their activities. The Bauhaus director Lázló Moholy-Nagy—the modernist in machinist's overalls, the artist as engineer—embodied this heroic affirmation of system over self, this shift from artworks by individual artists into the collective production and consumption of designed objects.
At the same time, however, industrial design and other economically lucrative art practices were conduits for aesthetic concerns into the experience of everyday spaces and things. The special place of "art" as an independent domain in society became ever more restricted, as traditional modes of art no longer held the monopoly on aesthetic pleasure. Beauty was now as close as the stylized coffee cup on the breakfast table, or the streamlined table and chair in which one sat to have that coffee. At once the material of the senses and, when industrially produced, also the tangible embodiment of utility and technicity, the world of objects seemed to offer a space in which contradictory demands for rationality and individual experience might be brought to a higher harmony.
For writers—in contrast to designers, graphic artists, architects, typographers, and photographers—the opportunities to intervene directly in the industrial economy or in political life were much more limited, confined for the most part to party propaganda or film work. We can detect in the proclamations of the surrealist leader André Breton during the 1930s a desperate desire to circumvent the more compromised choices while still connecting surrealist activity to the world of politics and of "the object." Whereas previously surrealism had concentrated its efforts on opening up new states of vision, consciousness, and
sensibility, Breton declared in his 1934 address "What Is Surrealism?" that it was now engaged with the serious task of changing "the object":
I should like to draw your attention to the fact that its most recent advance is producing a fundamental crisis of the object . . . . Only the very close examination of the many recent speculations to which the object has publicly given rise (the oneiric object, the object functioning symbolically, the real and virtual object, the moving but silent object, the phantom object, the found object, etc.) can give one a proper grasp of the experiments that surrealism is engaged in now.
Yet while this desire to intervene in the world of objects gave rise to some fascinating writing, like Breton's essay-novels Nadja and L'Amour Fou , much of surrealism's artistic practice nonetheless responds in a merely "lyrical" vein to major shifts in the social life of objects:
I for my part believe today in the possibility and the great interest of the experiment that consists of incorporating objects, ordinary or not, within a poem, or more exactly of composing a poem in which visual elements take their place between the words without ever duplicating them. It seems to me that the reader-spectator may receive quite a novel sensation, one that is exceptionally disturbing and complex, as a result of the play of words with these elements, nameable or not.
The lameness of Breton's justification for his "poèmes-objets," his appeal to their shocking novelty and the sensations they evoke in the reader-spectator, suggests that this aestheticizing response was largely retrograde. As Henri Lefebvre observes about the surrealists, "Their purely verbal metamorphosis, anamorphosis or anaphorization of the relationship between 'subjects' (people) and things (the realm of everyday life) overloaded meaning—and changed nothing." In his practice of the "poem-object," Breton quite simply failed to draw any radical conclusions from those social tendencies that had trained his attention on "the object" in the first place. While these works transgress the traditional boundaries between the visual and discursive arts, they were in fact vastly outstripped by similar transgressions in industrially produced objects of consumption, publicity, or mass culture from this period (a situation not lost on Marcel Duchamp already two decades earlier, or on Breton's contemporary and admirer, Walter Benjamin).
Franco Moretti has noted the crisis literature faced in the new force field of culture that emerged with undeniable intensity in the 1920s and 1930s: "At the beginning of this century what is probably the most exemplary artistic form of bourgeois civilization—written literature—
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has passed into an unarrestable decline: what at one time had been its specific function has now moved and transformed itself into a constellation of cultural practices, rendering the existence of an activity exclusively devoted to this end almost superfluous." Insofar as literature had a marginal place in the new economy of media and artistic practices, the historian Manfredo Tafuri is correct in arguing that "literature and art as means of recovering Totality and of transferring it to the new historic subject by election . . . were part of a design that took place in the rear guard of capitalist development." In the narrow apartment left for literature in the new tower-block of the arts, one main task was proceeding apace: charting the process of the subject's disappearance, discovering its place "as an 'imperfect machine' in a social universe in
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which the only consistent behavior is that of pure silence." Orwell similarly argued that contemporary literature's sole chance at honesty lay in its facing up to the fact that literature had become impossible in the present age: "From now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer's world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer . For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism." Orwell posed
the writer with a stark choice of two undesirable positions: the autism of being permanently removed from any effective participation in modern life, or the mutism of not being able to practice the free craft of writing. Lewis too captured the impossible paradox of this position with the last line of his satiric novel The Childermass . In the spirit world of the wartime dead, Pullman tells his comrade Satters: "Pick your feet up. If you must go nowhere, step out."
A crucial locus of rationalization, and the foremost instance of the "system of objects," both impersonal and intensely stimulating, was the metropolis . I utilize this term in a specific sense, derived from Georg Simmel's fundamental essay "Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903). In Simmel's view, the metropolis is not just a big city. It is a big city in which bigness has taken on a functional character, in which the intricacy of functional interconnections within the city has generated a new sort of agency or subject. Simmel writes: "A man does not end with the boundaries of his body or the vicinity that he immediately fills with his activity, but only with the sum of effects that extend from him in time and space: so 'too a city consists first in the totality of its effects that extend beyond its immediacy." Not merely its physical presence, thus, but its effective character, defines the metropolis. And for Simmel, one of the most important domains in which this effective character can be detected is in the psychic life of city dwellers: a modification of the nervous organism in accordance with the objectivized Geist of big city life.
Simmel's concept of metropolis, as Massimo Cacciari notes, thus presupposes the unsettling of individual subjectivity, a development that has often been considered typically "modern" (in Jürgen Habermas's terms, modernization is "the subordination of life-worlds under system's imperatives" ). Restating Simmel's view in the language of Marx and Weber, Cacciari writes: "The metropolis is . . . the phase, or the problem , of the rationalization of all social relations, which follows that of the rationalization of relations of production. . . . When the Geist abandons the simple and direct relations of production, it no longer creates the city but the Metropolis. It is the Geist , not the individual, that of necessity inhabits the Metropolis."
The great capitals of modernity—Berlin, Paris, Vienna, London, New York, and, newly, Los Angeles—with their passion and misery, their dispossession of individuals and promise of collective fulfillment, their technological rationality and social atavism, their embodiment of history and remorseless "forgetting" of the events that transpired in them, seemed to exemplify the condition that confronted the later modernist.
This condition was, however, rarely accessible in any fully thematized or transparent way to the writer. The diagnostic role and its modulation into the prophetic was, as Lewis's Rend Harding (Self-Condemned ) or Barnes's Matthew O'Connor (Ryder and Nightwood ) would testify, a dubious and potentially self-condemning part to have to play. As consciousness took collective shape in the metropolis, and individual subjectivity was triumphantly pulverized, it became increasingly difficult for authors to achieve some sort of synoptic vision, to discover some place from which to narrate the whole.
While accepting a certain inevitability to the erosion of individual subjectivity, later modernist writers viewed it with considerable ambivalence, verging at times on despair. Indeed, they doubted that the process of metropolitanization could give rise to a stable, abstractly rational, collective subject. The consummate rationalization of culture in the present form of the metropolis was for them an unrealizable utopia: the process held within its dynamics its own limit, an inextinguishable trace of irrationality that would expand precisely with the progress of the ratio . The Austrian novelist Hermann Broch summed up the pessimism of many of his contemporaries when he wrote: "The highly developed rationality of modern metropolitan culture does not at all mitigate the human twilight, rather it intensifies it. The accepted ratio becomes a mere means for the satisfaction of drives and thus is robbed of its content as knowledge of the whole." In the form of the metropolis, rationality had embarked on a journey to the end of the night, reducing the individual subject to (in Beckett's words) "a peristalsis of light, worming its way into the dark."
This irrational subjective residue was a kind of "accursed share" left over by the structures of social rationality. Affective and experiential as well as material and social elements were excluded from the functional, technical integration of social space, then shunted into a shadow existence in the social unconscious. Again, the surrealists were particularly self-conscious in strategically revaluing this debris of the social system as a protest against the values of work, technicity, and mechanical efficiency. Indeed, as lean Baudrillard suggests, the surrealist image is hardly thinkable without its complementary opposite, the functional object of industrial design: "The Surrealist object emerges at the same epoch as the functional object, as its derision and transgression. Although they are overtly dys- or para-functional, these phantasmatic objects nevertheless presuppose . . . the advent of functionality as the universal moral law of the object, and the advent of this object itself,
separated, autonomous and dedicated to the transparency of its function." The events of the late twenties and thirties, of course, provided late modernist writers with ample evidence of the undiminished force of this residue in social life. In the marked escalation of social conflict and political violence, a violence that ultimately gained institutional legitimacy in the National Socialist and other fascist regimes, they witnessed a veritable irruption of collective irrationality concentrated in the cities.
In Minima Moralia , reflections written in exile during World War II, Theodor Adorno attempted to comprehend what had come to pass in twenty years. In one section, he described the fate of modernism's drive to produce the new. No longer confined to the autonomous sphere of art, the dynamic of modernism had, in Adorno's view, emerged as a general social principle. It had been taken up extra-aesthetically in large-scale social dynamics like warfare, in which the arms race compelled an accelerated pace of technological innovation. Likewise, previously extra-aesthetic social spheres like labor and politics were now shaped by aesthetic demands for beauty, intensity, and newness.
Adorno situated the problem of modernism within the category of the "New," which dictates a perpetual renewal of its object while at the same time remaining essentially indeterminate, indifferent to the concrete content that may temporarily fulfill it. For Adorno, this ambiguous status of newness gives aesthetic modernism, which adopts novelty as a primary source of value, its compulsive character: "Baudelaire's poetry . . . is full of those lightning flashes seen by a closed eye that has received a blow. As phantasmagoric as these lights is the idea of newness itself. What flashes thus, while serene contemplation now attains merely the socially pre-formed plaster-cast of things, is itself repetition. The new, sought for its own sake,. . . petrified into a conceptual scheme, becomes in its sudden apparition a compulsive return of the old, not unlike that in traumatic neuroses."
Adorno refers to an increasingly general, collective search for newness, which realizes in unanticipated ways the aesthetic-political goal of the early avant-garde to "democratize perception" (Mina Loy) and open art out into social life. He suggests that tendencies already present in Baudelaire's and Richard Wagner's publicistic activities have, at this late date, come to fruition. "Today," he writes, "the appeal to newness,
of no matter what kind . . . has become universal. . . . The decomposition of the subject is consummated in his self-abandonment to an ever-changing sameness."
Implied in Adorno's formula is a historiographic hypothesis: the new war (World War II), precisely in its newness, is a recurrence brought about by the persistence of the trauma of the old one. The manifest "newness" of the present conflict, Adorno suggests, depends on a traumatic destruction of experience that allows the same to recur as if it were really new:
Just as the war lacks continuity, history, an "epic" element, but seems rather to start anew from the beginning in each phase, so it will leave behind no permanent, unconsciously preserved image in the memory. Everywhere, with each explosion, it has breached the barrier against stimuli beneath which experience . . . forms. . . . But nothing, perhaps, is more ominous for the future than the fact that, quite literally, these things will soon be past thinking on, for each trauma of the returning combatants, each shock not inwardly absorbed, is a ferment of future destruction.
Adorno adapts for his social-psychological reflections the model of consciousness that Sigmund Freud developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle , a model explicitly designed to explain the compulsive repetition of traumatic dreams among shell-shocked veterans of World War I. Adorno implies that the entre-deux-guerres period is, in a sense, one long bout of war neurosis, in which the effects of trauma have proliferated in a general contagion. Whether or not this is acceptable as social analysis, Adorno's intuition was shared by many writers and thinkers of the period, that the traumas of the 1920s and 1930s, which culminated in World War II, were somehow an immanent unfolding of an original, unassimilable disaster, the Great War.  Wyndham Lewis, for instance, expressed this view with epigrammatic concision: "The Great War is a magnet, the 'post-war' its magnetic field."
Adorno's diagnosis of a kind of collective shell shock or, more generally, a pervasive neurasthenia in the face of a runaway modernity, is of the greatest interest for understanding the emergence of late modernism after 1926. Explicit in the extensive theoretical writings of Wyndham Lewis and the occasional criticism of Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett, as well as implicit in the fictional works of all three authors, is the vision of a general depersonalization and deauthentication of life in modern society.  Everyday life, in their view, was being increasingly penetrated by mimetic practices—role-playing, contagious imitation, "rhythmic"
forms of association, anthropomorphic "animation" of the object-world, ritualized behavior—previously confined to well-defined spheres in religious ritual, theater, and the arts. Such generalized mimetism was at once an involuntary process for individuals, a compulsory lowering of the threshold of difference between subjects and objects, their unconscious assimilation to an objective environment—and a social phenomenon consciously manipulable for political and commercial ends (for the art , as Lewis's book title put it, of"being ruled"). Late modernism, as it emerged in the late twenties and thirties, both reflected and reflected critically upon this loss of a stable, authentic social ground.
As might be expected, given his commitment to theoretical and political thinking, Lewis explored this process most explicitly and extensively. Already in his essay from 1925, The Dithyrambic Spectator , and his 1926 treatise, The Art of Being Ruled , Lewis had advanced his privileged image for the mimetic contamination of subject and object: the bringing of spectators onto the stage. This image, as Lewis employs it, is not so much a metaphor as the focal pivot of a broad social panorama: the influx of "life" into the theatrical spectacle signifies reflexively the outflow of "theater" into political, cultural, and sexual life. The boundaries of art dissolve in ritualized, aestheticized social practices: "Very rapidly the banks of spectators turn into a great assembly of 'amateurs' once more. Then it is that the phase left out by Miss [Jane] Harrison occurs: that namely in which a collective 'play' is engaged in, in which no 'real' or 'practical' issues are involved." In The Art of Being Ruled , Lewis opens his chapter entitled "The Disappearance of the Spectator" with a question: "Should there be 'players' and 'livers,' art and life, or only one thing?" He goes on to make the political and aesthetic parameters of this question abundantly clear: "The new theater of Russia aims at emphasizing a collective personality rather than an individual one, at expressing masses not men. . . . So we see the simultaneous disappearance of the author and of the actor , to all intents and purposes" (AOBR , 158). Lewis's discussion of these changes drew heavily on recent works of cultural reportage about the Soviet Union, among others, Michael Farbman's After Lenin (1924), Huntly Carter's The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet Russia (1925), and René Fü1üp-Miller's evocatively illustrated and compendious study, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (1926). Lewis views this perilous breakdown of distinction—between subject and object, between spectator and spectacle, between producer and consumer—and the subsumption of art into everyday life as expressed integrally in both social revolution (Lewis criticizes
communism and fascism on this point) and the revolutionary aesthetics of the avant-garde.
The centrality of this analysis to Lewis's overall critique of modernism cannot be overestimated: it informs in equal part his expostulations against his modernist colleagues in "The Revolutionary Simpleton" section of Time and Western Man and his criticisms of surrealism in The Diabolical Principle , his polemic against transition's Joyce-affiliated editors. By 1934, the date of Lewis's second major blast against a number of key modernists, Men Without Art , his sense of a rupture with a previous order and a concomitant derealization of social life had become all the more radical:
An artist who is not a mere entertainer and money-maker, or self-advertising gossip-star, must today be penetrated by a sense of the great discontinuity of our destiny. At every moment he is compelled to be aware of that different scene . . . behind all that has been familiar for so long to all the nations of the Aryan World. Nothing but a sort of Facade is left standing . . . before which fustian property (labelled The Past , a cheap parody of Ancien Régime , with feudal keeps in the middle distance), the Gossip-column Class bask in enormous splashy spot-lights of publicity. It is what is behind the Facade that alone can be of any interest in such a pantomime.
Ultimately, Lewis concludes that this flattening of the present into a scenario, with the past as its stage properties, is the beginning of generalized "play": "it is the end of history, and the beginning of historical pageant and play. But we are all compelled, to some extent, to enter into the spirit of the comedy—that is the humble message of this book." (MWA , 165).
I want to suggest here (and later demonstrate in greater detail) that a similar vision of a nascent "society of the spectacle" animates the literary thinking of Barnes and Beckett. In their fiction, the social analysis remains more immanent, embedded in formal and imagistic aspects rather than being discursively manifest. But in their scattered criticism of this period, even Barnes and Beckett reveal a concern with the contemporary "derealization" of reality, its progressive replacement with simulacra and spectacles. Thus, in an article in the December 1929 Theatre Guild , Barnes dons a prophetic mask to pose the question, "Why Actors?" Barnes implies that theater is a general, even anthropological, condition and that "we are all"—the author included—"compelled to enter into the spirit of the comedy" (Lewis). She writes: "Because I am a holy man . . . I have seen many sorrowful things. Men wanting to be Napoleon, and women wanting to be Helen of Troy, and little children
wanting to be policemen. Therefore this passion in the human heart to be something it is not, is no secret to me, yet it troubles me, for I am not sure if it is true aspiration or a terrible and unholy criticism of the Most High, and this I must know, for I myself have wanted to be other than I am." Beckett, in keeping with his early philosophical concerns, gives this derealization of reality an ontological and epistemological spin. In his survey "Recent Irish Poetry" he thus speaks of "the breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook," and a "breakdown of the subject," while in a review of the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey he refers to a "dramatic dehiscence, mind and world come asunder in irreparable dissociation."
Beckctt's "dramatic dehiscence" and Lewis's "disappearance of the spectator" point to a shared sense that their contemporary reality—both subjective and objective—was somehow becoming "less real." Both testify to a blurring of sharp boundaries between subject and object; and both register the diffuse feeling of disorientation that pervaded the inner and outer words in which the modern subject moved. The outer world—of crowded streets, of department stores, of movie houses, of political rallies—had taken on fantastic, aestheticized shapes once found only in dreams, paintings, or fiction. The inner life, in contrast, had appropriated the object-world in which people lived and moved, now taking the shape of a city street, later of a shop window, then perhaps of a cinema or a fascist parade. It is in response to this new configuration of self and its boundaries that late modernism finds its contextual and affective basis. For once the stable line between subject and object began to lose its sharpness, thickening and breaking apart in complex rhythms, a whole series of precepts central to earlier modernism had to be rethought. The heroic subjectivity of the innovating artist; the organic convergence of form and content in a symbolic unity set down by the artist on paper, on canvas, in stone; the exhibition of stylistic mastery as a criterion of value; the belief in an underlying mythic or aesthetic order to history; and the possibility of redeeming tradition through its transfiguration into art—all these basic tenets of modernism's aesthetic ideology were put in doubt by the object's new dispensation, at least for those artists willing to extend their uneasy intuitions to their practice.
Since I have argued for the historically situated nature of late modernism, it is appropriate to approach a definition by considering a work of the period in question. In his 1934 book Men Without Art , Wyndham Lewis offers an extended explanation and justification of his own writing as defined against several of his contemporaries. It is this text, then, that will provide my point of departure for a more specific depiction of late modernism's physiognomic traits.
Lewis begins his exposition by noting the problem of his own situation as an artist: "I am a satirist. . . . But I am not a moralist. . . . [I]t is these two facts, taken together, which constitute my particular difficulty" (MWA, 87). Lewis notes that traditionally the satirist needed the moral sanction of the community to do what he does: launch satirical attacks and provoke laughter. Yet Lewis believes that shared moral values have evaporated and feels no moral solidarity with others. He is forced, under these circumstances, to consider the possibility of "nonethical satire," " 'satire' for its own sake," to justify his own case.
What is notable in Lewis's discussion is his intense self-consciousness about his own lack of determinate social location. As an artist, his identification with a community, the Rebel Arts group or the vorticists or even the "men of 1914," was a thing of the past. His attacks on his former colleagues in Time and Western Man and on the Sitwell and Blooms-bury coteries in The Apes of God had severed whatever links remained. He was no less clear about the impossibility of his "situation" in the political domain, to which, in fact, his views on "nonethical satire" represented a practical response (as did, in another vein, his ambivalent embrace of fascism). Thus, in his 1937 autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering , Lewis wrote: "Nineteen-thirty-seven is a grand year. We are all in the melting pot. I resist the process of melting so have a very lively time of it. I know if I let myself melt I should get mixed up with all sorts of people I would sooner be dead than mixed into. But that's the only sense in which I'm conservative. It's myself I want to conserve. I wouldn't lift a finger to conserve any 'conservative' institution. I think they ought to be liquidated without any exception at all." Lewis's nonethical satire is written by an authorial subject in extremis: one revolutionary enough to wish all existing institutions liquidated but without solidarity with any collective or community; one threatened with extinction and hence dedicated foremost to self-preservation.
The identity of such a threatened subject is guaranteed, in the last instance, by its discreteness and self-continuity—qualities symbolized above all by the integrity of the individual body. As Lewis's chapter "The Piecemealing of the Personality" in The Art of Being Ruled suggests, he thus conceives the primary threat to the subject to be dismemberment (a thinly metaphorical fate that Lewis often renders literal in his fictional works, through scenes of decapitation and other bodily violence): "Continuity, in the individual as in the race, is the diagnostic of a civilized condition. If you can break this personal continuity in an individual, you can break him . For he is that continuity. It is against these joints and sutures of the personality that an able attack will always be directed" (AOBR, 204). Yet satire, in its scurrilous abuse of grotesques and "puppets" (a prominent word in Lewis's satiric lexicon), discloses precisely the vulnerability of everyone to such attack on the "integrity" of body and of person:
It is unnecessary to enumerate the tragic handicaps that our human conditions involve—the glaring mechanical imperfections, the nervous tics, the prodigality of objectless movement—the, to other creatures, offensive smells, disagreeable moistures—the involuntary grimace, the lurch, roll, trot or stagger which we call our walk —it is only a matter of degree between us and the victim of locomotor-ataxy or St. Vitus's dance. (MWA , 93)
"Unnecessary" it may be, but satire will address itself precisely to enumerating and even exaggerating the fragility, friability, and permeability of the human body.
Laughter, to which Lewis assigns a highly specific function, serves to resolve this apparent contradiction. For laughter, in Lewis's view, functions to inoculate the organism against the buffetings it faces from without: "Laughter . . . has a function in relation to our tender consciousness. . . . It is the preserver much more than the destroyer" (MWA , 89). It is an "anti-toxin of the first order" (MWA , 93). It protects the "tender consciousness"—which Lewis always sees as endangered by the modern "climate"—by hardening up the organism, "stiffening" it: "There is a stiffening of Satire in everything good, of 'the grotesque,' which is the same thing" (MWA , 99). The laughter evoked by satire, if it is to have this "healthy" effect, must be diffuse and impersonal: "in a sense, everyone should be laughed at or else no one should be laughed at. It seems that ultimately that is the alternative" (MWA , 89).
At this point, Lewis draws out the implications of this view that "everyone should be laughed at." Clearly, he says, this goes against the
grain of our decency: we normally suppress our laughter at the deformed and infirm. Yet to justify, his theory, Lewis proposes to take the issue to its extreme. He conjures up the image of laughter in the face of the recent trench warfare:
So far so good: but what of the shell-shocked man, for instance? He is often very funny, and it is very difficult not to laugh. But that is like laughing at the contortions of a dying man, and it would be too brutal a society that made a habit of laughing at its shell-shocked persons—especially as it would be to the society, of the laughers to which ultimately the responsibility for these disfigurements would have to be brought home. Therefore there is no society that does not refrain from guffawing at the antics, however "screamingly funny," of its shell-shocked men and war-idiots, and its poison-gas morons, and its mutilated battle-wrecks. (MWA , 92)
If this passage is almost painful to read, it is not (for me, at least) because of the "brutality," it seems to suggest in its author. On the contrary, for all the pretense of "coolness," one senses a vertiginous hysteria: the price exacted from its author to suppress a rising scream. Lewis evokes here a kind of unspoken primal scene of his writing: the loss of bodily and affective control before the sight of shocked, damaged, mutilated human bodies—the everyday world of wartime Flanders and Passchendaele.
Peter Sloterdijk has noted how Thomas Mann anatomized the cynical laughter of the Weimar years in three terrible scenes in The Magic Mountain . The first two scenes relate the involuntary laughter of interlocutors who have heard matter-of-fact accounts of the corpses, pulmonectomies, and other grim details of the sanitorium. The last scene of laughter, however, is of a different order: a pure automatism, like Ezra Pound's imagined "laughter out of dead bellies." A patient having a lung operation breaks into laughter out of "pleural shock," a reflex of the pleura being palpitated: "I heard myself laughing, while I was kicking the bucket, but not like a human laughs, but rather, that was the most disgraceful and nauseating laughter I have heard in all my life, for the palpitation of the pleura, gentlemen, that is as if one were being tickled in the utmost shameless, most exaggerated and most inhuman way."
This laughter, like the laughter of dying bodies and of soldiers driven mad by the sight of them, a laughter utterly unrelated to any spiritual response, is strictly a limit-experience. It is what Lewis calls "perfect laughter," which, he says, "would be inhuman" (MWA , 92). Yet below this limit is another zone of laughter minimally touched by moral consciousness or personal concern. It confronts the absurd as a component
of the anthropological condition, yet preserves the historical memory implied in thinking the limit of a laughter of "pleural shock" or of a belly convulsed by shrapnel. Lewis suggests that such a laughter is essentially reflexive, "non-personal and non-moral": "And it enters fields which are commonly regarded as the preserve of more 'serious' forms of reaction. There is no reason at all why we should not burst out laughing at a foetus, for instance. We should after all only be laughing at ourselves !—at ourselves early in our mortal career" (MWA , 92). It is the self-reflexive laughter ("laughing at ourselves!") of the survivor in the face of alterity and death, the subject's minimum self-confirmation, the minimal trace of the instinct for self-preservation. I laugh, therefore I (still) am.
Laughter has an intimate relationship with the situation of the embodied subject in external space, a fact that should give pause considering Lewis's insistence—both in his theory of satire and in his criticism of other modernists—on spatiality over time and physical exteriority over psychological interiority. As I will discuss Time and Western Man in greater detail later, here I want to take up Lewis's expressed preference for the "ossature" and "shell" of the living organism (his "favorite part" being the dead one) over its soft, fluxive innards. Likewise, he prefers "the rigid stylistic articulations of the grasshopper," the outer armor as it were, to "the jellyfish" (MWA , 99).
This imagery, hinging on the distinction of inside and outside, unconscious and conscious, and surface and depth, is reminiscent of Freud's depiction in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of consciousness as a rigidified, deadened shield against excess stimuli from without. Freud evolved this theoretical model, as I have already noted, in response to the traumatic dreams of shell-shock victims in World War I. These dreams seemed to contradict the psychoanalytic model of dreams as wish fulfillment and thus impelled Freud to postulate the "death drive" to explain the conservative repetition, seemingly "beyond the pleasure principle" evident in wish fulfillment dreams, of such traumatic dreams. In developing his argument, Freud employs a largely unstated but crucial analogy between the shattered experience of the adult shall-shock victim and the inchoate experience of the infant, regressing across the divide of adult speech from the postlinguistic tics and abreactions of the trauma patient to the prelinguistic pulses and affects of the prelinguistic human animal. To survive, the trench soldier needed to inure himself against the constant bursting of flares, the thunderous noise, the confusion and bloody terror of artillery bombardment. Yet this process
is, Freud suggests, only an extreme—and sadly ineffective—version of the normal condition of the human organism in the world. In infancy, however, the balance of external and internal forces is so much skewed toward the stimuli coming from outside that the child's experience is as potentially devastating as that of the soldier. Freud's task, then, is to explain why soldiers get shell shocked from trench warfare, while babies, under normal circumstances, do not end up traumatized by their surroundings.
By way of an answer, Freud offers the hypothesis that our conscious psychic life serves to channel and screen external stimuli that would be overpowering energies were their intensity not reduced. This consciousness originates in a kind of deadening of the sensory system that spans the mind and body, a devitalizing of sensory life in order to delay the reactions of the body and allow an interval of choice and reflection. Freud uses the metaphor of a hull of inorganic armor around a vital core, a hardened sheath formed of blasted layers of once-sensitive matter, which serves the life of the whole by suffering the storm of stimuli coming in from the outer world:
Its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becomes to some degree inorganic and thenceforward functions as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli. In consequence, the energies of the external world are able to pass into the next underlying layers, which have remained living, with only a fragment of their original intensity. . . . By its death, the outer layer has saved all the deeper ones from a similar fate—unless, that is to say, stimuli reach it which are so strong that they break through the protective shield. . . . The protective shield is supplied with its own store of energy, and must above all endeavor to preserve the special modes of transformation of energy operating in it against the effects threatened by the enormous energies at work in the external world—effects which tend towards a levelling out of them and hence towards destruction.
For Freud, consciousness, in contrast to traditional images of it as active, living soul, is a rigidified, deadened filter against experience—a hard outer shell, sacrificed to preserve life and prevent breaching of the inner organism by all but the most violent of shocks (like the war experience manifest in traumatic dreams).
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno reinterpret Freud's image of defensive hardening culturally and politically. They suggest that an emphasis on "coldness" and "hardness"—so much a part of the political discourse of the German right, and for Lewis, significantly, the pri-
mary quality of satire—can be seen as a corporeal defense against the "seduction" of pure space, the death-drive understood as an assimilation to the dangerous extensiveness of inanimate nature.  Idiosyncrasy—often the occasion of laughter—represents for them a potential dissonance in human spatiality, which may set in motion a dialectic of dissolution and defensive stiffening:
In idiosyncrasy, individual organs escape from the control of the subject, and independently obey fundamental biological stimuli. The ego which experiences such reactions . . . is not wholly in control of itself. For a few moments these reactions effect an adaptation to circumambient, motionless nature. But as the animate approaches the inanimate, and the more highly-developed form of life comes closer to nature, it is alienated from it, since inanimate nature, which life in its most vigorous form aspires to become, is capable only of wholly external, spatial, relationships. Space is absolute alienation. When men try to become like nature they harden themselves against it. Protection as fear is a form of mimicry. The reflexes of stiffening and numbness in humans are archaic schemata of the urge to survive: by adaptation to death, life pays the toll of its continued existence.
As Lewis suggests in his remark on satire, however, laughter may, like mimicry, fulfill a defensive function against a threatening "outside." Laughter may turn back self-reflexively on the subject, "stiffening" the self against danger, marking that minimal "spatial" difference between conscious life and the pure extensivity of dead nature: a difference that preserves the subject, however diminished, in situations of adversity.
In an extraordinary remark in his 1948 essay on Charlie Chaplin, the film critic André Bazin draws together these threads of laughter, self-defense, and mimicry in an example taken from contemporary popular culture. Bazin notes, in passing, how many of Chaplin's gags involved a peculiar way of "brushing aside danger": " 'Camouflage' is not really the right term. It is more properly a form of mimicry. One might go so far as to say that the defense reflexes of Charlie end in a reabsorption of time by space." Echoing the analysis of insect mimetism advanced by Roger Caillois during the 1930S, also a crucial influence on Horkheimer and Adorno, Bazin's comments suggest that Chaplin's comedy depends on a kind of mechanical interruption of the flow of images and a breaking apart of the organic structure of movement. Such an interruption, however, is no .thing more than a capacity implicit in the technical medium and apparatus of film itself, which simulates continuous motion by projecting a steady stream of discrete, slightly different images. Supplementing Bazin's claim that time is reabsorbed by space,
then, we might say that Chaplin's organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating and accentuating others. Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. By perfecting the equivalence between his body and the "cinematic body" produced by the camera, Chaplin becomes the very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate.
Bazin continues his discussion by elaborating the image of the comic film star as mimetic insect:
The painted canvas tree in which Charlie is hiding blends in with the trees of the forest in a way that is quite "hallucinating." One is reminded of those little stick-like insects that are indiscernible in a clump of twigs or those little Indian insects that can take on the appearance of leaves, even leaves that caterpillars have nibbled. The sudden vegetable-like immobility of Charlie-the-tree is like an insect playing dead, as is his other gag in The Adventurer when he pretends to have been killed by a shot from a gun. But what distinguishes Charlie from the insect is the speed with which he returns from his condition of spatial dissolution into the cosmos, to a state of instant readiness for action. Thus, motionless inside his tree he flattens out, one after the other, with swift precise movements of his "branches," a file of German soldiers as they come within range. (149)
Both Bazin's rejected metaphor of "camouflage" and Chaplin's repeated regression into the backdrop before the oncoming column of German soldiers underscore how closely the issue of mimicry was tied to the historical context of war—for Chaplin, World War I, for Bazin, more immediately, World War II. At the same time, Bazin implicitly seconds Lewis's conception of a self-reflexive, defensive laughter, finding it in the laughable mimicry of the beleaguered little man. Chaplin's characteristic rhythm of fall and recomposure in the face of superior powers, human or mechanical, evoked a new sort of minimal self, as much corporeal as psychic, as much technical as organic, and held together by stiffening bonds of a laughter without exterior object.
In her essay "Place Names," Julia Kristeva explores precisely this minimal articulation of space in relation to the child's acquisition of language and the eventual sublimation of spatiality in syntactic structures. One section of the essay, entitled "Space Causes Laughter," considers precisely the scenario I pose above—but here not with respect to the
regression of a formed subject, rather with the nascence of the subject, the progression of the infant toward speaking/forming. Kristeva evokes a scene of a primary fusion of scattered elements in a crystallizing burst of laughter:
Voice, hearing, and sight are the archaic dispositions where the earliest forms of discreteness emerge. The breast, given and withdrawn; lamplight capturing the gaze; intermittent sounds of voice or music—all these meet with anaclisis [the "leaning" of one drive on another, for example, oral erotic drives on hunger—T.M.] . . ., hold it, and thus inhibit and absorb it in such a way that it is discharged and abated through them. . . . At that point, breast, light, and sound become a there : a place, a spot, a marker. The effect . . . is no longer quiet but laughter. The imprint of an archaic moment, the threshold of space, the "chora" as primitive stability absorbing anaclitic facilitation, produces laughter.
This archaic laughter of the infant is, Kristeva emphasizes, unconnected to a "sense of humor," which "presupposes the superego and its bewilderment" (284). But it responds sensitively to temporary derangements of space such as distorted faces, caricatures, vertiginous movements, and falls. It absorbs and discharges the rapid, violent, excessive "facilitations" of the body in space: "they stop there, impart the jolt—laughter. Because it was bounded but not blocked, the rate of facilitation discards fright and bursts into a jolt of laughter" (284)."
This account, transferred from the nascent self of the infant to the marginal, endangered self of the adult in extremis, resonates strongly with Lewis's image of a laughter linked to self-affirmation rather than humor. Lewis, though at times very funny, nonetheless opposes "humor," "clowning," and mere "fun making." Already in the opening pages of Tarr , Lewis puts his eponymous hero up to an attack on "the University of Humour that prevails everywhere in England as the national institution for developing youth." "Humour," Tarr argues, "paralyses the sense for Reality and wraps people in a phlegmatic and hysterical dream-world." Two decades later, speaking on BBC Radio, Lewis would make the distinction between humorous and satiric laughter explicit: "Satire laughs as much as humour laughs. But satire laughs differently. In the satirist's laughter good humour is not implicit. But it would not be accurate to say that, in consequence, bad humour is of the essence of his mirth. . . . He merely takes his laughter more seriously, as it were. Laughter for him is an explosive agency, and its object is to blast, rather than to tickle." His "humor" is a serious matter,
occasioned more by a spatial disturbance (an "explosive agency") than by anything "funny." It serves to absorb shock experience and to deflect it aggressively outward as self-preserving laughter.
Late modernist writing seeks to provoke this "serious," aggressive laughter. It is a deliberate conjuring, through the deformation of the body, through the evocation of its vulnerable "joints and sutures," its unpleasant "moistures" and "smells," of that "riant spaciousness" (Kristeva) that ends in laughter. Lewis thus writes:
"Satire". . . refers to an "expressionist" universe which is reeling a little, a little drunken with an overdose of the "ridiculous"—where everything is . . . steeped in a philosophic solution of the material, not of mirth, but of the intense and even painful sense of the absurd. It is a time, evidently, in which homo animal ridens is accentuating . . . that wild nihilism that is a function of reason and of which his laughter is the characteristic expression. (MWA , 232)
Satire, which Lewis often puts in scare quotes to indicate his unconventional "late modernist" definition, is thus the art of a minima moralia, the voice of "damaged life" persisting at the threshold of disappearance as a self.
Late modernist texts are, of course, complex literary structures, not tissues of pure laughter. Yet their forms have more than a casual relation to laughter. As Georges Bataille suggests, laughter suppresses knowledge, affirming and canceling it at the same time:
He who laughs does not, theoretically, abandon his knowledge, but he refuses, for a time—a limited time—to accept it, he allows himself to be overcome by the impulse to laughter, so that what he knows is destroyed, but he retains, deep within, the conviction that it is not, after all, destroyed. When we laugh we retain deep within us that which is suppressed by laughter, but it has been only artificially suppressed.
What Bataille describes psychologically as a relation between the mind, laughter, and knowledge can also, however, be understood in textual and rhetorical terms. In his studies of Rabelais, in fact, Bakhtin made precisely this translation from laughter as an affective expression to laughter as a formal component of texts. He argues that laughter can be "reduced," that is, sedimented into forms that preserve its disruptive force while restricting its active presence: "Under certain conditions
arid in certain genres . . . laughter can be reduced. It continues to determine the structure of the image, but it itself is muffled down to the minimum: we see, as it were, the track left by laughter in the structure of represented reality, but the laughter itself we do not hear." As a formal component of texts, laughter gives rise to modes of irony, parody, and satire in which the literal, denotative sense of a text is convulsed by a disruptive negation or deformation of sense. In works of reduced laughter, the text's form and figures are "altered," made other, blurred by a rhythm of doubling in which meanings are alternately posited and canceled. Through its reduction, its containment in generic forms and conventions that silence its explicit presence, laughter moves from folk practices and rituals (i.e., carnival, the feast) into the forms of discourse and, ultimately, the history of literary genres.
Intuitively, it causes us no particular problem to grasp that there might be a relation between laughter and textual forms. After all, it is common enough that texts make us laugh, which at least suggests the possibility of moving from one to the other. Yet on reflection, the way in which this happens seems rather mysterious. How is it that something as abstract and disembodied as, say, a description in a book brings about such a concrete, bodily response as laughter? It is even less clear how the process might be turned around: how physically embodied laughter could become virtual in language, "reduced," sedimented in textual forms. While Bakhtin's remarks are enormously provocative, one quickly reaches problems in explaining exactly how this process might work. Is the idea of "reduced" laughter just a clever theoretical cipher, a convenient way for Bakhtin to move between social context and textual forms without really explaining the mechanisms involved? For Bakhtin, I am tempted to answer this question in the affirmative. I also believe, however, that Bakhtin's sense of a transitive relation between embodied laughter and textual forms is correct and can be put on firmer theoretical grounds. For this task, it is necessary to turn to Freud's 1905 study of jokes, but to put it to somewhat unexpected use. For it is not Freud's psychoanalytic theory of jokes that offers the crucial key to this puzzle of relating laughter to textual form but rather his discussions of phenomena excluded from the ambit of psychoanalytic theory because they need not entail the workings of the unconscious: smut and the comic.
The first key lies in verbal behavior that is related to jokes but that exists on their margins: "smut." Freud argues in the third chapter of his study, "The Purposes of Jokes," that in certain situations a speaker uses
obscene language as a means of seduction; the speaker is trying to make the interlocutor see , in imagination, the sexual content of the words, and thus to arouse. If the attempt works, words pass rapidly into action, the clothes come off, and as Francesca tells a horrified Dante, they "read no more that day." If, however, the immediate aim is somehow inhibited, by situation or by the interlocutor's refusal, obscene speech takes on a peculiar autonomy, becoming a pleasurable end in itself. It is this autonomized obscenity that constitutes, properly speaking, smut. "Since the sexual aggressiveness is held up in its advance towards the act," Freud writes, "it pauses at the evocation of the excitement and derives pleasure from the signs of it in the woman" (Freud assumes that the seducer is male and the seduced is female). This account provides us with an important analogy to Bakhtin's idea of "reduced laughter," for smut, in Freud's view, is "reduced arousal." In smutty speech, the words remain charged with a latent residue of the sexual scene and may suddenly modulate back toward action if the context changes—the nosy neighbor leaves, the interlocutor has a third double martini, "Old Blue Eyes" comes on the radio, and so on.
In Freud's account of smut, the affective force of the words, their ability to cause arousal, depends on a capacity of language that he leaves relatively unthematized here but that forms an important part of his theory of dreams: the intertranslatability of words and images. Words can conjure up images of the body, can make us see a sexual content, and can affect bodies by means of this capacity. In his chapter "Jokes and the Species of the Comic," Freud offers a theory of how the affective interface between psychic and corporeal acts arises, to explain how, for example, incongruities of movement or scale can make us laugh. He suggests that perceptions of space and motion come about imitatively. The imitative performance of movements sets a standard of "innervatory sensation," which can then be remembered even in the absence of an actually performed movement. In this way, embodied perceptions of actual objects, spaces, or movements can become memories of embodied states, which have the ability to affect the body when reactivated. In a provocative extension of these ideas, Freud goes on to suggest that our ways of expressing ourselves, not only gesturally, but also verbally and even conceptually, retain elements of these mimetically learned states. He calls this intermixture of embodied perceptions and affects with verbal and conceptual expressions "ideational mimetics." Thus, to take a simple example, our conventional use of metaphors of largeness and smallness reveals traces of our mimetic relations to objects and
spaces. Finally, Freud suggests that these mimetics not only form part of our intersubjective communication, for example in language, but also underlie intrasubjective processes like imagination.
This discussion of ideational mimetics is highly suggestive for our attempt to consider how texts and laughter might be transitively related, as Bakhtin's notion of "reduction" suggests. Freud, in essence, posits imitative activity as the crucial missing link that articulates the complex relations among language, imagination, affectivity, and embodiment. Moreover, if, as I have indicated, one of the essential historical characteristics of the interwar years is an enforced drive to imitation (what I call "generalized mimetism"), then Freud's theory suggests that late modernist literature may be registering a crucial change in the "ideational mimetics" of the period—that stock of figures, narrative structures, and images of voice that testify to the lived experience of the body in a determinate social space. The ideational mimetics of late modernism reveal the desperately heightened incongruities in the social experience of artists between the wars—incongruities that provoked self-reflexive laughter.
In texts structured in this way by reduced forms of laughter, open laughter only breaks out at points where the force of incongruity exceeds the containing energies of the image, at sites where figures rupture and forms fail. In late modernist works, accordingly, self-reflexive laughter bursts out above all at moments of maximum stress on characters, pushed to the limits of madness, dissociation, and death. The potential for such eruptive 'manifestations of laughter, however, underscores the tenuous nature of all such containing structures of literary form. Though from the position of the threatened subject, a writing structured around self-reflexive laughter may represent a potential foothold against disintegration, it nonetheless offers a significantly weaker formal principle than more symbolically unified modes. Laughter is at once articulated and mobile; it has an ambivalent relation to form. As Helmut Plessner writes: "To laughing . . . belongs . . . the significant and conscious relating of an expression to its occasion, an expression which breaks out eruptively, runs its course compulsively, and lacks definite symbolic form."
In the case of late modernist writing the "occasion" is the writing itself, which seeks to provoke self-reflexive laughter as its "significant" and "conscious" expression. Yet as such, this intention represents a very weak organizing basis—an almost substanceless subjective ground for giving form to a work. This hypothesis is confirmed by the observable
lack of formal solidity in late modernist works, an absence of overall symbolic form, which runs the gamut from pastiche in works like Barnes's Ladies Almanack to out-and-out collapses of large-scale form in Beckett's Dream of Fair to Middling Women and Lewis's The Childermass . By comparison, the remnants of the Bildungsroman used by Joyce and Lawrence, the adventure genres adapted by Conrad, the tightly symmetrical structures of the late James, even the buried mythic underpinnings of Ulysses and The Waste Land represent relatively strong symbolic constructions for the author to renew creatively. Whether by compulsion or deliberate strategy, the late modernist writer stood opposed to the discursive mastery of earlier modernists.
With these general theoretical observations in mind, we can now turn briefly to Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes, to indicate how their work is animated by similar concerns as those expressed by Lewis, if in less openly polemical and programmatic ways.
Beckett's writing, like Lewis's, arises out of an analogous reflection on a peculiar type of laughter as the zero degree of subjectivity—a condition shared by the artist, his characters, and his reader/spectators. Critics have often pointed to Nell's observation in Endgame as a kind of encapsulated version of Beckett's tragicomic vision: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that." Less often remarked is the way that laughter , not happiness or unhappiness per se, is primarily at stake in Nell's meditation. For she goes on to say: "Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more" (19). This concern with laughter (and its disappearance) is consonant with the play as a whole, in which laughter, even where cruel or bitter, is an index of a minimal residue of humanness. Thus, asked to survey the horizon, Clov quips (pointing the telescope at the audience), "I see . . . a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy," then turns to Hamm and asks, "Well? Don't we laugh?" Hamm replies: "I don't," and Clov concurs: "Nor I" (29).
Beckett's dramatic works of the fifties, with their post-Unnameable return to embodied characters and a comparatively "expansive" space of play, can be seen as recurring to the late modernist mode of the thirties
and early forties, after the admitted exhaustion of the trilogy and "texts for nothing." And in fact, Beckett's last English novel, Watt , contains a meditation closely connected to the scenes from Endgame quoted above: in my view, a genuinely theoretical reflection on the nature of laughter. Its fictional framing is minimal, coming as it does in the long freestanding monologue of the departing servant Erskine to the newly arrived Watt:
Of all the laughs that strictly speaking are not laughs, but modes of ululation, only three I think need detain us, I mean the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless. They correspond to successive . . . excoriations of the understanding, and the passage from the one to the other is the passage from the lesser to the greater, from the lower to the higher, from the outer to the inner, from the gross to the fine, from the matter to the form. The laugh that now is mirthless once was hollow, the laugh that once was hollow once was bitter. And the laugh that once was bitter? Eyewater, Mr. Watt, eyewater. But do not let us waste our time with that. . . . The bitter, the hollow and—Haw! Haw!— the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout—Haw!—so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus , the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs—silence please—at that which is unhappy.
Three things are notable about Erskine's remarks on laughter. First is that from the start he focuses on a particular kind of laughter: "strictly speaking not laughs, but modes of ululation . . . successive excoriations of the understanding." In short, this laughter has nothing to do with the laughter of humor but is rather a specifically satiric laughter, an exasperation of the mind and a lamentative howling. Erskine underscores this difference between ordinary laughter and satiric laughter by situating the latter above the "tragic" affects on his hierarchy of value. Thus, below the lowest mode of satiric laughter, the "bitter," is "eyewater" (i.e., tears), peremptorily dismissed as a waste of time.
Second, the lower two planes of satiric laughter, the bitter and the hollow, correspond to the objects of traditional satire: the bitter laugh is aimed at the unjust ("that which is not good") and is thus "ethical"; the hollow laugh is aimed at the untrue and is thus "intellectual." The modes of satire that provoke these forms of laughter depend on a stable position in ethical norms in the first case, in knowledge in the other. The satirist must him- or herself know the good and the true, and s/he
may assume the existence of at least a few listeners who also know them and who can thus understand the satire. But the last plane of laughter, the mirthless, occupies a strange, placeless, asocial space: the threshold-an originary in -adequation—between the mind and the world. The mirthless laugh is "dianoetic," pertaining to thinking, and specifically to a thinking that attempts to extend beyond the inherent properties of the mind itself. It laughs at unhappiness, which begins, Erskine implies, not with unhappy circumstances but with recognizing the world's alterity as such.
Finally, this laughter—as with Lewis's—is self-reflexive. The mind's recognition of the world's alterity is also a self-recognition. The mirth-less laugh is the event of this recognition. It is the trace of consciousness confronting its minimal condition, the "beholding . . . of the highest joke," the genesis of consciousness as unhappy consciousness. The mind is unhappy and laughs at (the) unhappiness, which is itself: "the laugh laughing at the laugh." Such self-reflexivity should not, however, be understood as an example of the high modernist turn to authorial subjectivity as the basis of symbolic unity and, correlatively, its highlighting of epistemological questions (for example, the ironic occultation of truth in Conrad's novels). On the contrary, Beckett's assumption of an originary "infelicity" of mind and emphasis on "mirthless" laughter implicitly debunks the high modernist paradigm and its traffic in epistemological conundrums. Beckett disenchants the whole question of truth in favor of exploring epistemically contingent, "ungrounded" phenomena of pleasure, pain, social power, and death. "Yes or no?" Beckett's "seedy solipsist" Murphy asks. His free-floating commentator adds: "The eternal tautology."
Unlike Lewis and Beckett, Djuna Barnes does not explicitly theorize laughter in her work. Nevertheless, implicit in her literary depictions is a problematic of threatened subjectivity and self-reflexive laughter similar to that identified in these other late modernist authors. Near the beginning of Nightwood , for example, the Jewish "aristocrat" Felix Volkbein finds himself at a party at Count Onatorio Altamonte's house in the company of circus actors and the ubiquitous Dr. Matthew O'Connor. Suddenly the Count makes his appearance, only to dismiss his party guests without further explanation. When the bewildered Felix asks the oxymoronically named (or hermaphroditically endowed) circus performer "Frau Mann" about the Count's authenticity, this "Lady" replies: "Herr Gott !. . . Am I what I say? Are you? Is the doctor? . . . Yes or no?" Where everything is not what it seems, Frau Mann implies,
the very question of authenticity becomes nonsense, yes and no become tautological. Laughter, in turn, the late modernist's self-reflexive laughter, is the only appropriate response to this nonsensical world from which authenticity has been banished. Dr. O'Connor observes the scene, collecting himself in the face of the absurd through an inward-directed laughter: "The doctor was lighting a cigarette and in its flare the Baron saw that he was laughing silently" (N , 21). The Doctor's laughter shores up the ruins of his crumbling, night-roaming self, stopping his moral vertigo in a stiffening jolt. In a clear projection of his own desires and fears, Dr. O'Connor explains the Count's strange behavior in fancifully ribald terms. "Count Onatorio Altamonte," O'Connor claims, "suspected that he had come upon his last erection" (N , 21). Yet there is little need to ask how O'Connor might know of the Count's final tumescence, or whether he had guessed correctly. The Doctor's "explanation" refers first and foremost to himself. His punning play on the "last erection" before the "resurrection" is a joke on his own cockeyed condition, shuffling between the privies of Paris and the altars of its churches. He laughs self-reflexively, "hardening" himself against a threatening yet seductive loss of boundaries, maintaining his human "erection" against the temptation to dissolve himself into the darkness and night air.
Dr. O'Connor's hardening of the self through laughter stands in stark contrast to Felix's near-dissolution by it. On hearing the phrase (uttered by O'Connor) "the cold incautious melody of time crawling," Felix loses control of himself:
Felix . . . broke into uncontrollable laughter, and though this occurrence troubled him the rest of his life he was never able to explain it to himself. The company, instead of being silenced, went on as if nothing had happened. . . . This only added to the Baron's torment. He began waving his hands, saying, "Oh, please! please!" and suddenly he had a notion that he was doing something that wasn't laughing at all, but something much worse, though he kept saying to himself, "I am laughing, really laughing, nothing else whatsoever!" (N , 16)
I would suggest that this bizarre scene, almost incomprehensible in terms of narrative motivation, reflexively represents within the text the perilous place of Barnes's reader before her text. Felix, himself precariously balanced in his own mask and costume, discovers the impossibility of reading —of interpreting—the unreal world of the Count's party. O'Connor's conceit ("the cold incautious melody of
time crawling") combines an evocation of infantile spatiality ("crawling") and the absurd passage of time (a terrifying reality), for Felix). It triggers the regressive unraveling of "the Baron's" confected identity. The demonic laugh that he hears comes from somewhere else, a sheer alterity. It is a mirthless laugh, expressing the perplexity of Barnes and her reader, to whom every form of relation to these characters is barred but one, the laughter welling up around Felix. And yet, the position of author and reader is inscribed nowhere else than within Felix himself. The laugh is self-reflexive, self-confirming, preserving the minimal condition of subjectivity and saving Felix from utter disintegration as a "character": "I am laughing, really laughing, nothing else whatsoever." The laugh brings him back "to himself," literally stiffening him against the next wave of the doctor's verbal onslaught: "As abruptly he sat straight up, his hands on the arms of the chair, staring fixedly at the doctor who was leaning forward as he drew a chair up exactly facing him" (N , 17).
In the preceding discussion I have attempted to depict the complex web of factors that contribute to the emergence of late modernism near the end of the 1920s. I have also developed such key theoretical concepts as generalized mimetism, self-reflexive laughter, and the weakening of symbolic form in late modernist works of literature. In conclusion, I wish to offer a more general description of late modernist writing, in the form of a taxonomy of basic features. Although each of the authors I treat gives a personal inflection to the elements of the model I am defining, and while the different texts of a given author manifest these elements to a greater or lesser extent, I identify seven major areas of continuity between them:
1) Late modernist works present a deauthenticated world in which subject and object, figure and ground, character and setting are only weakly counterposed or even partly intermingled. The different works may employ a greater or lesser degree of reference to "social reality," that is, may be more or less "mimetic" in the traditional sense. Yet whether they represent "realistically" a world where spectacle and simulacra predominate and characters are near-puppets of external forces (as in Lewis's The Revenge for Love ) or they construct a phantom heterotopia from the start (Lewis's TheChildermass ), they are character-
ized by a disruption of stable differences and thus disclose the emergence of what I have called "generalized mimetism."
2) Both externally (in terms of the author's identification with an artistic or other social community) and internally (in terms of the author's narrative perspective as evident in literary texts), late modernism is decisively marked by a minimal "positionality" of the author-ial subject. That is to say, these texts bear the marks of an author without determinate social, moral, political, and even narrative location: isolated, in drift, and unstably positioned with respect to the work. This minimal positionality stands in distinction to more traditional modes of satire, which depend on a stable basis in ethical norms or knowledge or custom, both for the satirist and for the projected audience of the satire; it also differs from the strong orchestrating role of earlier modernist authorship. The late modernist may assume neither a stable ground of values nor any commonality with an audience, nor even a subjective ground of form, beyond an anthropological minimum.
3) This "anthropological minimum" is what Lewis called "nonhuman, nonpersonal" laughter, what Beckett calls "mirthless laughter," and what I have analyzed and generalized as "self-reflexive laughter." This laughter, functioning to preserve and shore up—to "stiffen"—a subjectivity at risk of dissolution, constitutes the telos and minimum basis of formal unity for the late modernist work.
4) Following from this latter point, late modernism—in distinction to both traditional literary form and the formal principles animating earlier modernism—exhibits a major loosening of symbolic unity. Aimed at provoking self-reflexive laughter, late modernist works employ a special type of de-formed "spatial" form. This form resembles what Bakhtin calls "reduced laughter" and Kristeva calls "riant spaciousness"—a rhetorical, textual, and formal structure that occasions laughter. Such a mode of spatiality characterizes the mechanically disarticulated space of Lewis's "puppets"; the wobbly oscillations, semicircular peregrinations, and sudden disequilibrations of Beckett's tramps and clowns; and the bizarre mannerisms and tics of Barnes's "performers." Following Kristeva, I would characterize this spatiality as an irruption of a presymbolic, figural "chora" (a mobile order, rhythmically articulated) into symbolic form—a general "shaking loose" of fictional space and time into a disaggregated "choral" shape.
5) Considered thematically rather than formally, "riant spaciousness" also accentuates the fragility and permeability of the human body and
its uneasy fit within the spaces around it. To put it otherwise, late modernism is marked by a predominance of grotesque bodies, motivated by the goal of provoking self-reflexive laughter.
6) One type of grotesque representation occupies a special thematic place in late modernism and should be separately mentioned: an obsessive depiction of pure corporeal automatism. Images of tics, fits, convulsions, involuntary eruptions, and more arcane phenomena like the bizarre ailments plaguing Beckett's characters or the example of "pleural shock" discussed above abound in late modernism as instances of "limit-experience." They stand as figures of an unthinkable and unrepresentable threshold: a pure laughter in which all subjectivity has been extinguished. Self-reflexive laughter may never cross or even reach this threshold, but it stands always in relation to it, as if in the field of its thanatopic magnetism.
7) Late modernism, finally, presents an image of subjectivity "at play" in the face of its own extinction. It prepares the literary ground for the anthropological "endgame" Beckett would betray to the world in the 1950s—the theatricalized gestures of the Western subject, rehearsing its final abdication. Yet unlike, perhaps, the late writings of Beckett and other canonical instances of postmodernism, late modernism maintains a tenuous hold in the borderland of "mirthless laughter": a mortifying jolt that may yet work to stiffen and preserve.