U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Robert Genter and Splitting Modernism

GenterAs part of my slow going but ongoing Great Books in US Intellectual History Series, I now turn my attention to Robert Genter’s Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (2010). The timing of my post on Late Modernism—coming on the heels of Kenneth Burke week at the blog—is intentional because Genter depicts Burke as the quintessential late modernist, as perhaps the representative postwar thinker who critiqued modernism from within, who wanted a rhetoric that communicated with more people instead of one that merely expressed the individual desires of the writer or artist, but who also remained committed to the modernist project of exploring new forms of consciousness. In addition to Burke, Genter places C. Wright Mills, Norman Brown, James Baldwin, and David Riesman, among others, in the late modernist camp.

Being a late modernist made one a sort of intellectual outlier and perhaps even a prophet. This is certainly how Genter situates Burke, who believed that most modernists, especially high modernists like Lionel Trilling, had “forsaken the true task of the artist” in their futile attempts to bracket aesthetics off from the social and political realm, those who, in Genter’s words, “fought a desperate campaign to safeguard art as a distinct mode of knowledge separate from industrial growth.” In this way Genter sees his intervention as a challenge to Irving Howe’s claim, made in his famous 1967 essay, “The Culture of Modernism,” that modernism had died because modernist artists and writers no longer had hope that humans could overcome repressive social constraints.

Although Howe’s pessimism was warranted when the high, academic modernism of Trilling was under consideration, Genter’s late modernists contradicted such a declension narrative. In contrast stood late modernists like Burke, who Genter sees as a proto-postmodernist. “Burke’s criticisms in the late 1940s predated what would become a larger revolt against the aesthetic and epistemological assumptions of modernism in the 1960s and 1970s, as a range of intellectuals and artists associated with the movement known as postmodernism criticized the project of modernism in the postwar period as to esoteric, too devoid of playfulness, and too disconnected from popular concerns.” Yet Burke remained a modernist because he posited the existence, indeed the necessity, of a fully formed self. For late modernists, the self—the sovereign political and cultural individual—had not yet fully dissolved, as it later did in the postmodern imagination. Genter thus proposes to revise the standard narrative of the shift from modernism to postmodernism. “We must recognize instead the historical roots of modernism, thereby treating the transition to postmodernism less as a radical shift to a fundamentally new paradigm of literary and epistemological understanding and more as a complex, historically engaged challenge to the dominant strands of modernist practice.”

In addition to giving us a new narrative, Genter gives us a new vocabulary. One of the joys of reading Genter is the way he puts distinctions on thinkers where we thought none existed. He is the quintessential splitter, and I mean this as a compliment, fully agreeing with him when he writes that “the refusal to make categorical distinctions leads… to the night in which all cows are black.” Whereas I previously grouped David Riesman in alongside someone like William H. Whyte, based on my supposition that Riseman’s “other-directed” human was little different than Whyte’s “organization man,” Genter convincingly analyzes Riesman as a late modernist with a much more nuanced appreciation of how modern relations had reshaped the human personality to be more empathetic. Unlike high modernist Theodore Adorno, who Genter portrays rather surprisingly, given Adorno’s western Marxist credentials, as a fairly typical Cold War liberal, the late modernist Riesman was less concerned with finding some inherent weakness in the American character. Riesman’s famous 1950 book Lonely Crowd shared some affinities with the other social psychological studies of the era—such that individual personalities had shifted in response to mass consumerism—but he was less pessimistic than the high modernists about these implications. Riesman’s work “was full of hesitations, corrections, and open admissions of speculation, something Riesman found missing in [Adorno’s] The Authoritarian Personality.” In short, Riesman thought other-directedness was a superior personality type to inner-directedness.

There is a lot more to say about Late Modernism that I might need to save for a second post. But for now I will conclude, not with a critique, but rather with a bit of necessary lumping, which doubles as a warning. Like most recent works of US intellectual history, including canonized books like Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory, and no doubt including my forthcoming book on the culture wars (I don’t exempt myself from this lump), a neo-pragmatic consensus shapes Genter’s book. The late modernists whom Genter celebrates are, in effect, pragmatists. In fact, this seems the reason Genter prefers them to the high modernists like Trilling and the romantic modernists like the Beats. Neo-pragmatism seems to be the normative framework from which Genter judges his intellectuals. As Genter writes: “late modernists argued that the self was neither fully whole nor autonomous but instead constituted through an endless parade of generalized and significant others—sometimes with overlapping agendas and sometimes with conflicting interests—that provided the context for self-identity.” This is a rhetorical repetition of the Via Media thinkers so thoroughly dissected by Kloppenberg.

So what does it mean that we are all neo-pragmatists? How can we understand the strengths and weaknesses of our work when we’re all more or less working from the same epistemological vantage point? Alasdair MacIntyre insists that we must learn from pre-modern traditions that enable “us to overcome the constraints on self-knowledge that modernity… imposes.” Is this even possible? What other possibilities for self-knowledge are open to us? Or is it pragmatism all the way down?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Heavens, Andrew, if I didn’t know better I’d think you were almost spoiling for an argument with somebody going to bat for foundationalist epistemologies of one kind or another. Alas, I have no such argument to make.

    Genter’s book was a transformational read for me in many ways, precisely because it showed a many-splendored complexity and nuance and diversity within intellectual movements that had seemed monolithic and also not a little monotonous. I learned a lot from his handling of the contested nature of masculinity. It was interesting that he managed this without linking the contest of gender to a contest of sex — that is, he showed different norms and understandings of masculinity in tension with each other, rather than in tension with norms of femininity. This has the advantage of highlighting contradictions and fissures that were “built in” to the project of mid-century masculinity, rather than, say, “brought in” by some “war of the sexes.”

    Genter’s book is such a smart, great read. Glad to see it included in the canon.

    • LD: Nice comments. I’m not necessarily spoiling for a fight with a foundationalist (although one of the reasons I so appreciate a thinker like Christopher Shannon is because he approaches our discipline from an outsider perspective and thus I learn a lot about myself even though I largely reject most of his epistemological and political claims). I tend to think Marxism of a certain variant (of the type theorized lately by someone like Terry Eagleton) can act as a semi-foundational check on pragmatism of neo-pragmatism or post-structuralism or post-modernism or whatever we want to name our anti-foundationalism. But, so many people with Marxian tendencies share such anti-foundationalist sensibilities (me included) that it becomes difficult to think of Marxism as an outsider perspective. This is what reading Burke–and reading Genter on Burke–has made me conclude. The Burke of the 1930s, the Burke of ATTITUDES TOWARD HISTORY was at once a fairly standard Marxist–at least in terms of his views of historical change in the longue durée. And yet his compelling views on ideology, or what he termed “frames of acceptance,” have a pragmatist ring to them, and his later work on rhetoric–which made him the quintessential late modernist for Genter–is pragmatism through and through. So this is a personal dilemma if not a disciplinary problem. Cheers.

  2. Andrew,
    Great post, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about your take on the arguments of the book. But I’m also interested in your characterization of Genter as the “quintessential splinter.” It seems to me that, at the top level, so to speak, Genter is also a highly original lumper–Burke, Brown, Riesman, Johns, Baldwin, Mills, and Ellison have nothing obvious interlinking them, but Genter brings them together under this single formation. Or perhaps lumping is not the right term–maybe re-constellating? Not moving the figures around so much as finding new patterns to connect them?

    • Good point, Andy, that Genter is a highly original lumper or re-constellator. Perhaps what makes his book so good is that he does both. On the one hand, early Cold War modernism is an intellectual milieu that is too often considered in monolithic terms, probably because it’s politics were shot through with anticommunism and every intellectual maneuver seemed to be a way to demonstrate its anticommunist credentials. At least this is how it has been read since the sixties, when New Leftists rightly critiqued the often simplistic anticommunism of the modernists (in the form of psychological reductionism or other reductionist theories). But on the other hand, we as intellectual historians have also often separated out certain modernists for standing against the anticommunist grain of their milieu. But such people have often been considered outsiders, or lone wolves. I am thinking especially in terms of C. Wright Mills. One of Dan Geary’s major arguments in his intellectual biography of Mills is to address the myth of Mills the renegade and call attention to how Mills worked within the early cold war modernist framework even when he was critical of it. Genter splits up modernism, showing that it wasn’t all so reductionist, while also lumping together a bunch of thinkers who otherwise might not have been considered of a particular milieu apart from the modernist mass.

  3. Andrew,

    Maybe your most notable claim is that the “late modernists” are pragmatists, and that Genter’s book is informed by “a neo-pragmatist consensus,” similar to that which Kloppenberg brought to and found in the thinkers and doers of Uncertain Victory.

    I’ll echo Andy Seal’s comment that Genter is a reconstellator if not a lumper, a point also made by Dan Wickberg in his review of Genter and two other books on modernism last year in MIH. As Wickberg points out, the book “begins with an art-historical framework for understanding modernism, but what is really at stake is a broader domain of social thought,” and in an interdisciplinary move shows that “artists and thinkers usually considered within specific disciplinary or subcultural frames were really grappling with a common set of problems.” [209-210].

    It’s also that Burke is at the center of the network Genter explores, distinguishing those who “directly borrowed” from him – Mills, Goffman and Ellison – from others who “independently echoed his claims.” [11; see 4]

    Your claim becomes something of a giveaway if Burke is read as a pragmatist as well as a theorist of rhetoric, but there’s apparently some distance still to be traveled, and the book begins with his move as an artist and critic from inside the modernist world to outside, on his rejection of the hothouse, and insistence that art is a form of rhetoric and communication, a social affair. [4]

    [Perhaps Genter takes the connection as uncontested, since he doesn’t take much time nailing down the debts of his social theorists to the original pragmatists, though he briefly considers Burke’s and Mills’ use of Mead, 219-220 and 153-163.]

    Much depends on how modernism in its variations is defined, whether more or less inclusively. On a broader conception, pragmatists would have a part in any likely formulation; on a narrower view, there’s some space or distance, some constellating of subject matters, or interdisciplinary work.

    Robert Danisch speaks to a similar distance recently in “The Absence of Rhetorical Theory in Richard Rorty’s Linguistic Pragmatism” [Philosophy and Rhetoric 46, 2, 2013], arguing that Rorty’s “linguistic turn” failed to incorporate rhetorical theory, so that his “pragmatism cleaved philosophy off from the social democratic project,” and sometimes “the linguistic turn resulted in scholarship within the pragmatist tradition that was strictly academic instead of political and practical and led to the advancement of work on a series of philosophical puzzles instead of political progress.” [156-7].

    In the end, while Burke may be the key figure in late modernism, Genter’s central purpose is “tradition building,” helping to build a “post-postmodernist” form of “cultural politics…centered on the process of identification” [16-17, 324]

    Maybe it is “pragmatism all the way down,” but it seems an odd, barely-affirmed or even addressed consensus, requiring some effort to march or cheer about, yet apparently the obvious, or obviously only, available option, live or otherwise. I’ll drink to that.

    • Bill: This is a great comment and I don’t have much to add. I will say that this label I’m playing with in my larger analysis of US intellectual historiography–the “neo-pragmatist consensus”–is more of a shared sensibility among us than an explicitly worked out addition to the pragmatist canon (James, Dewey, Peirce, etc). Perhaps this also applies to Burke. In any case this is a theme I will return to in my great books series.

  4. I second the motion on the word “reconstellating” — nice work, Andy.

    In that regard, Genter’s approach reminds one (or this one, anyhow!), of Morton White’s Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism.

    Perhaps the tell-tale sign of a pragmatist or neo-pragmatist historical frame is the practice of reconstellation?

  5. PS: For those reading along, the next book I will blog about in this series is Martin Jay, THE DIALECTICAL IMAGINATION. I can’t predict a date for this but rest assured it will happen at some point.

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