“If we are to break out of the non-historical fixity of post-modernism, then we must search out and counterpose an alternative tradition taken from the neglected works left in the wise margin of the century, a tradition which may address itself not to this by now exploitable because quite inhuman rewriting of the past, but for all our sakes, to a modern future in which community may be imagined again.” – Raymond Williams, When Was Modernism (1987)
Welsh academic Raymond Williams investigated the “problematic history” (48) of the Modernist movement in the 1987 lecture “When Was Modernism,” exposing selective readings of history, issues of canonicity, and semantic complications within the preeminent cultural doctrine of his time. Williams closes his lecture on a hopeful note, calling for a reworking of modernism which would ease culture from an alienated, ahistorical post-modern bind into the possibility of a future where “community may be imagined again.” (52) As I read the transcript of this lecture 25 years after it was delivered, I wondered if the problems of modernism, and even arguably, post-modernism (esp. if you think po-mo is just a difference in degree from modernism), had been placed, at least unsteadily, in context as moments and movements of history. The world has actually changed a great deal in 25 years, in ways which were scarcely imaginable to those writing post-WWI and II. Technological advances, and especially the advent of a popular web culture, make for new kinds of community, and new kinds of alienation. How would Williams see the results of these rapid changes? Would he think that community has been re-imagined by digital culture, or would he see our new medias and LOL Cats as an even more severe case of post-modern alienation?
Williams begins by discussing the semantic problems of the term modernism. Modernism was originally a term for the present and new, but came to be associated with a specific historical period and cultural movement. To divert the meaning of term in this way creates a sense that the present has already happened, it implies a kind of apex of history. Williams notes that the phrase “avant garde” has been mistakenly used to refer to a historical class of works, for instance, Dadaists, as cutting edge “seventy years after the event.” (49) If the front guard has already marched on, there is an implication for everything which follows. Williams believes that this notion of modernism constitutes “an ideaological perspective,” forcing everyone beyond to become “post-moderns.”(49) Post-modernism is partially a reaction to the forms of modernists becoming fixed and accepted in the bourgeois culture formerly vilified by the movement, the tropes of alienation and disjunction being set into popular culture. Post-modernism is an unacceptable, toxic social state to Williams; he calls these proliferations of modernist ideals into popular culture “heartless formulae,”
The proposed solution to the now-narrow focus of modernism is a re-evaluation of the movement, focusing on “neglected works.” (52) Is it possible that digital advances have actually facilitated this kind of revision? The greater access to historical information and obscure literature allows a wider understanding of the forces at play in the period, and easy communication facilitates participation in academic discussion. (see almost anything we are doing in class, the digitization of print material, etc) Williams writes that modernism was born of “the greatest changes ever seen in the media of cultural production,” and there may have been another significant shift in production at the end of the last century. Web based and interactive media present challenges and continuity to Modernist concerns, but most importantly, these advances seem to subsume concerns about stagnant history; modernism isn’t the dominant cultural line anymore. Something is different.
Williams passed away in 1988, almost a decade before any popular internet use, so it’s difficult to know what he would think of our new culture, or if he would think it to be new at all. The main difference I would like to argue is that the internet has in some way re-imagined the ways we function together, it has re-imagined what a community might be, but it has also furthered initiatives of traditional community in vivo. The internet has democratized creation of culture from the expression of a select few ‘genius’ artists to the creation of the masses with a few mouse clicks. Is this a more rapid dissemination of the heartless po-mo formulae, or is it something else? Is our constant togetherness a form of community, or is it just more alienation?
(two guys play the ‘most frightening video game ever’ while skyping. Two people in different locations have the same experience. Pretty strange to think about, pretty unique historically)
Williams, Raymond. “When Was Modernism?” Lecture. University of Bristol, Bristol. 17 Mar. 1987. Dr. J Matthew Huculak: Readings for ENGL4620. Dr. J Matthew Huculak. Web. 11 May 2012.