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On the Concept of Modernism

Surely the least recognized aspect of Althusser's thought has been its modernist character. In the course of defending historical knowledge as


scientifically valid, Althusser has initiated an original and powerful modernist renewal of Marxism, one that successfully avoids the extremes of reductionism and pluralism, objectivism and subjectivism, mechanism and voluntarism. In defending Althusser's work as a modernist science of history, I am necessarily contesting the view that modernism has been exhausted or superseded and reaffirming the modernist critique of positivist, idealist, and historicist tendencies that preceded it. Defining the term modernism is, of course, controversial.[10] Most generally it refers to the cultural outlook of European intellectuals from the late nineteenth century to the present (or at least until the advent of postmodernism in the sixties). However, such a conception is so panoramic as to include almost everything of significance written or produced after 1890 and so eclectic as to render itself virtually useless for analytical purposes. To formulate a more precise and adequate concept of modernism, it is necessary to identify those intellectual characteristics that were, if not absolutely new at the end of the nineteenth century, at least newly dominant.

Modernism—to construct a historical concept appropriate to phenomena as diverse as cubism and constructivism, Saussurean linguistics, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, Freudian psychoanalysis, Joyce's Ulysses , the cinema of Eisenstein, Brechtian theater, the sociologies of Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim, the philosophies of Frege, Rickert, and Mach—is an attitude toward knowledge, representation, and experience marked by a peculiar combination of ontological realism and epistemological formalism. Modernism evinced a greatly increased sense of the complexity of the object world, but even more important, to explain this new complexity modernists were compelled to posit the existence of abstract structures and forces underlying empirical reality. The existence of causal mechanisms about which our knowledge could never be certain or complete rendered physical, social, and human nature disturbingly less familiar than they had seemed to the nineteenth-century mind and significantly altered the terms of traditional oppositions such as those between art and science, emotion and reason, faith and knowledge, idealism and materialism, and freedom and determination. At the same time, the process of representation itself became a major preoccupation of modernism. The modernist philosopher, artist, or scientist was increasingly conscious of the formal structures that significantly determined his or her perception of the objective world and of the implications of such determination for the production and expression of meaning. From symbolic logic to non-repre-


sentational painting, abstraction not only provided a more rigorous and more fundamental access to reality but also demanded an awareness of the structured limits of that access, the irreducible gap between reality and our capacity to grasp and communicate it. Applied to the very production of meaning, abstract formalism created yet another breach within a variety of received traditions ranging from scientific positivism through idealist philosophy to romantic art and literature—and, of course, within the various political theories and conceptions of history deriving their inspiration from these sources.

The synthesis of ontological realism and epistemological formalism realized within the modernist tendency toward abstraction is not unique to the European turn of the century. However, this period is a watershed insofar as abstract formalism suddenly rose to predominance in all areas of intellectual and cultural production. In light of contemporary debates, two points regarding this historic shift of consciousness need to be made. First, it is important to remember how devastating the new modernist outlook was to empiricist and romantic views of the individual as a unified subject by whom and for whom reality is created and who is capable of grasping the truth of reality directly. In this respect it mattered little whether the individual was viewed as rational or irrational, whether reality was grasped by reason or by intuition, or whether history was viewed as progressive or cyclical: modernism was equally disconcerting to all these constructions. Equally imperiled were empiricist and romantic views that purported to grasp reality as a totality—that is, in terms of its ultimate meaning, nature, or teleology—and furthermore to comprehend it with rational, reflectionist, or intuitive certainty. In the face of modernism, empiricism retreated into a subjectivist pragmatism and the analysis of language and romanticism into aestheticist rebellion and philosophical mysticism.

Second, it is important to situate modernism within the context of monopoly capitalism and, more specifically, with respect to contradictions between the seemingly inexhaustible growth of technological knowledge, productive capacity, global and national integration on the one hand and the seemingly intractable persistence of class exploitation, political tensions between capitalist and socialist visions of democracy, imperialist domination, and international rivalries on the other hand. Neither the empiricist tradition, historically imprinted by the bourgeois struggle against aristocratic tradition and the egalitarian populism of the masses,[11] nor the romantic tradition, itself an oedipal


rebellion of cultured bourgeois "sensibility" against the competitive materialism and narrow-minded moral intolerance from which it sprang, was able to face up to these new contradictions, which, at bottom, constituted an attack on elitism by the propertyless and uncultured masses. Thus modernism, the intellectual movement that revealed, sometimes in spite of itself, the manifest contradictions and irrationality of capitalist society, became identified willy-nilly with the forces of progressive social change and the political Left. (The exception that proves the rule is Lenin's rejection of modernism and his return to the empiricist principle of reflectionism. Althusser strongly defends Lenin's commitment to objectivism and realism as well as his unsophisticated, if essentially correct, critique of the subjectivist and relativist tendencies indisputably present in neo-Kantian and empiriocritical philosophy. However, Althusser also acknowledges that Lenin was no philosopher, and he rejects Lenin's acceptance of a pre-modern, empiricist epistemology as well as Engels's notion of Marxist philosophy as a dialectics of nature.)

For these reasons it is incorrect to associate modernism with empiricist and romantic tendencies that continue to exert an influence by appropriating certain modernist insights and infusing them with pluralist, individualist, and relativist tendencies. For the modernist, however abstract and complex the structural determinations at work in the world may have become, they remain objectively real. Knowledge of them is not only possible, it is being produced at dizzying speed. Sensitive to the structured limitations inherent in the production and communication of meaning and knowledge, the modernist nevertheless subordinates epistemological relativism to a more general principle of ontological realism. The modernist, in other words, remains convinced of the validity of knowledge and thus the possibility of comprehending, criticizing, and improving the existing state of affairs and eliminating systematic inequality and exploitation. Empiricist rationalism and romantic irrationalism, on the contrary, remain committed to elitism and to the status quo precisely insofar as they reject the validity of knowledge on epistemological grounds. Vulgar pluralism, individualism, and relativism, as they have been deployed both separately and together, split the modernist synthesis of realism and formalism in order to reduce our knowledge of social reality to discontinuous fragments of subjective interpretation. In the wake of these moves, the only responses are despair, anger, and, ultimately, conformity.

My argument is that modernism is socially as well as intellectually


progressive. Being constructive rather than destructive, producing knowledge rather than denying its possibility, clarifies a basic difference between modernist and postmodernist sensibilities too often obscured by their common antipathy toward the empiricist smugness of nineteenth-century positivism. Modernism is anti-empiricist, but it retains a deep underlying continuity with the rational, realist, and materialist tradition of the scientific revolution. Despite its parasitic relationship to modernism, postmodernism's roots are elsewhere, in the anti-scientific tradition of irrationalism, vitalism, and nihilism. As for neo-liberalism, it remains, despite appearances to the contrary, pre-modern in its outlook. From the rubble of empiricism, neo-liberalism has attempted to salvage idealist and individualist assumptions about reason, rights, and justice whose anachronisms are barely concealed by their new, high-tech veneer. The games and models are now more sophisticated, perhaps, but they are still rigged in favor of the ruling class. Because there is nothing really new about the neo-liberals—not even a heightened awareness of their own class bias—there is no reason to withhold from any of them the title "genius of bourgeois stupidity" bestowed by Marx on the original neo-liberal, Jeremy Bentham.

This is not the place to survey the relationship between modernism and historical knowledge; suffice it to say that historical thinking was central to nineteenth-century culture and imbued with traditions incompatible with modernist thinking. Marx was the first to combine structural causality and the historicity of knowledge, but because Marxist modernism is necessarily identified with principles of economic determination and class struggle, it could hardly be acceptable to the ruling classes in capitalist society. Nowhere, in fact, have the consequences of modernism been more disruptive than in the human sciences, where relationships between modernism and social science have always been overdetermined by political and ideological considerations. On the Left, the modernist scientific achievements of Marxism have been sacrificed repeatedly to the exigencies of divergent political movements, while on the Right, overwhelming pressures to discredit Marxism and to develop an apologetic alternative vision of capitalist society have pushed social theory "beyond" modernism. The deprecation of the notion of a scientific history is also a function of ideology and politics: history is respectable now only if "fictionalized" by literary critics, "modeled" by philosophers, and splintered into an infinite number of genealogies by historians themselves. Such histories, even when expressly motivated by critical intentions, discredit their own


analysis by rejecting, in advance, the scientific value of their findings and by refusing to pursue the question of general structures, interrelationships, and determinations.

Fortunately, historical thinking has also been subjected to more constructive and substantive criticism of a modernist type, most recently from the major figures of French structuralism, including, of course, Althusser himself. It is important to recall that French structuralism was more than merely the application of Saussurean linguistics to a variety of social phenomena.[12] Defined broadly in terms of its focus on abstract structural determinations and their epistemological significance and in terms of its critique of empiricist rationality and autonomous human practice, structuralism must be acknowledged as one of the most important modernist movements of the twentieth century. Structuralism did more than give a distinctly French flavor to social theory; through the work of Althusser, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Greimas, and Barthes, the human sciences were radically transformed in a surprisingly short time. Althusser's rethinking of Marxism was very much at the center of these developments. Not only did he draw from classical Marxist texts latent theoretical conceptions they themselves did not or could not specify; he and his associates also developed altogether new concepts that revived historical materialism as a modernist and scientific practice. Althusser constructed bridges between Marxism and non-Marxist modernism that simply had not existed before. This perhaps more than anything else has frustrated critics on both the Left and the Right: from communist thinkers and activists a sophisticated body of work making use of non-Marxist concepts, including many considered inimical to Marxism; from academic philosophers and social scientists an unabashedly Marxist problematic based on a modernist rejection of pluralism, relativism, and individualism.

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