One of the many memorable moments of our second conference was the first: James Livingston’s plenary address, “Seeing, Hearing, and Writing the End of Modernity: From Reading Pragmatism to Watching Movies.” I found intriguing the way he used Warren Susman’s theory about “reversing the vector of intellectual history” to frame the discussion. Livingston explicitly referenced Susman’s framework in his introduction, stating: “Ideas cannot be ahead of their time.” In other words, intellectuals merely express preexisting modes of understanding already out there in the ethos. In his conclusion, although he did not reference Susman by name, he rephrased this “bottom up” theory of intellectual history, arguing that the end of modernity was already deeply felt, exemplified by the turn in film history that began in the 1970s—a turn to more graphically apocalyptic visions that accompanied the implosion of modern narratives, such as patriarchy and nationalism. Postmodern theorists merely put such popular sentiments into word.
Had Livingston stuck to a historical narrative that began in the 1970s, his talk would have been pretty conventional, at least from a film studies perspective. But Livingston extended his historical analysis back, in ways both provocative and confusing. For he also argues that pragmatism, which predates the 1970s transformation in film by almost a century—and is the topic of his last two books—is the most eloquent expression of the postmodern normalization of nihilism. For, according to Livingston, James and Dewey’s anti-subjectivity were more radical than any of the more recent postmodern theorists, including Deleuze and Guattari, who are often considered at the extreme end of postmodernism.
The question I posed Livingston at the conference, and that I now pose to you, the reader: How does this make sense, at least chronologically, if we are to hue to the Susman theory that reverses the trajectory of intellectual history from the bottom to the top? In other words, if the turn in film history is the major piece of evidence that the end of modernity was already felt prior to the explosion of postmodern theorizing in the 1980s, then where does pragmatism fit in this order of things? Livingston responded that cultural forms predated pragmatism, in the form of money, which was conceptualized as “a sign of a sign,” and that Dewey and James put such seemingly banal market relations into a philosophical framework.
I am very familiar with Livingston’s argument about the relationship between the “Money Question” and pragmatism from his 1994 book, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940. In fact, I find this argument extremely convincing in that specific historical context, as I make clear in the first chapter of my book, Education and the Cold War, where I frame Dewey’s pragmatic theories of education as transformational, and in opposition to otherwise astute critics, such as Randolph Bourne and Christopher Lasch.
But, to me, Livingston’s recourse to the money example is not an answer to my question, because I find the turn in film history gives expression to a much more radical break with subjectivity, or at least a much more widely felt break. So, if pragmatism was the extremity of end-of-modernity nihilism, as Livingston maintains, then it predates the turn of film history by many decades, thus rendering the Susman thesis less plausible. What I was looking for is more specificity with regards to historical context. My thinking is that pragmatism does not decenter subjectivity to the degree Livingston maintains.
This is hopefully the first of several posts I plan to write on the conference, which was a resounding success from my vantage point. I will be taking a much more active role in organizing next year’s conference. I only hope we can duplicate some of the energy we created this year.