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.