‘Modernism and Coherence: Four Chapters of a Negative Aesthetics’ by Fabio Akcelrud Durão reviewed by Jonathan Dettman

Modernism and Coherence: Four Chapters of a Negative Aesthetics

Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 2008. 157pp., £25.40 pb
ISBN 9783631569498

Reviewed by Jonathan Dettman

About the reviewer

Jonathan Dettman is a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. He writes about …


Modernism and Coherence is a book certain to interest Marxist critics and philosophers, especially those working in the area of literary theory. Its subtitle, ‘Four Chapters of a Negative Aesthetics’, acknowledges a debt to Adorno. Durão’s first chapter, fittingly, is a treatment of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, itself a great modernist work. The book goes on to consider key Anglo-American modernist authors: Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and James Joyce. Much like Adorno’s literary criticism, Durão’s text resists easy summarisation. Nevertheless, it should be possible to give a brief accounting of each chapter’s general movement.

Employing a procedure which he repeats throughout the book, Durão begins by considering existing criticism. Rather than attempting a comprehensive review, he limits the discussion to certain writers who have shaped reception in important ways or whose work reveals, in Durão’s words, ‘tension … between texts and institutions’ (19). In the case of Adorno, Lambert Zuidervaart’s exhaustive treatment of Aesthetic Theory is taken as representative of a criticism that, by ‘reducing the book to one or more privileged concepts’ (44), reifies the notion of truth content by denying the temporality that Adorno insisted was a constitutive part of the artwork. According to Durão, the form of Aesthetic Theory resists attempts to reduce it to concepts arrayed in the service of argumentation. Rather, Adorno’s text enacts a series of paradoxes which logic cannot solve but whose oppositional terms exist unresolved in the artwork. Durão relates these performative paradoxes to Adorno’s characterisation of the artwork as ‘a syllogism without concept or judgment’ (57). Durão describes Aesthetic Theory as the concentric movement of these truncated syllogisms whose refusal to dissolve their terms into positive concepts implies that meaning only coheres in the work’s absent centre, where only one figure can stand: Revolution.

This bracing conclusion is tempered by a deferral of sorts, a recognition of the dangers or difficulty of assigning a positive meaning to the contradictions that make Revolution a necessary figure. Aesthetic Theory must be read from the standpoint of Revolution, not the other way around. ‘The more AT is explained and analytically dissected, the more its different levels of negativity, its constitutive discontinuities, are filled with meaning and arguments, the stronger and more clearly its absent center refuses predication’ (61).

The chapter on Wallace Stevens attempts to mediate between a body of criticism, often biographical, that tries to account for the ‘pressure of reality’ in Stevens’ poetry, and another critical tradition that focuses on the generation of images and the production of meaning. Durão introduces a third term, sound, to bridge the gap between extratextual reality and the formal ‘abstract imagination’ of Stevens’ poetical narrative. The semantic coherence of Stevens’ oeuvre is only possible if all ties between sound and meaning are severed. Durão reads the autonomy of sound in Stevens’ poetry as the irruption of the real into a poetics which admits ‘reality’ only as an abstraction derived exclusively from the poet’s imagination. Thus, via a hermeneutics whose debt to Jameson’s The Political Unconscious should now be obvious, Durão is able to conclude that ‘the irreconcilability of classes in the social totality migrates to the incompatibility of sound and sense’ (89).

Durão’s reading of Robert Frost deals with a variety of critical positions that approach Frost’s work through its relationship with space: the imagined space of a community of readers, the regional space of New England, the universal space of poetic subjectivity, and the space of writing itself. Through the now familiar, yet always startling procedure of exploiting contradictions in and among existing interpretations in order to elevate these tensions to a higher level of critical insight, Durão reveals the hidden figure of repetitious, physical labour in Frost’s poem ‘The Wood-Pile’ that anticipates the performance of the labour of reading and interpretation.

The final chapter, on Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses, moves through three critical tropes and posits a fourth. Durão first discusses much of the early reception of the novel, which viewed it as a kind of ‘degree zero of coherence’ (119) chaotic or deranged. This ‘critical’ position gave way to a structuralist one in which scholars attempted to unlock Ulysses with master codes like numerology, Homer’s Odyssey, Christianity, myth, etc. The postmodern or poststructuralist critics who followed emphasized the novel’s polysemy. Derrida, for example, saw in Ulysses an endless expansive potential, an infinite dissemination of meaning. These readings relativised even the most compelling master codes, such as the musical interpretative key developed by Lawrence Levin, and opened a space for a fourth figure. This last figure is posited by Durão himself as yet another performative paradox: that of the simultaneous movement of writing and interpretation. Durão takes the self-reflexivity of Joyce’s novel as emblematic of literature in the 21st century. Here one must put aside commonplace notions about literary history and recall the temporality of the artwork, its aging, and the historical variability of its truth content.

Durão follows Adorno in insisting that the experiential content of an artwork, whatever its age, must be somehow commensurable with contemporary life. Otherwise, the work will remain a cipher. Durão sees Ulysses as enacting a paradox of endless expansion and self-limitation that mirrors the contradictory nature of the political economy of now. In other words, despite the many transformations that capitalism has undergone since the age of high modernism, its underlying dynamic – the self-expansion of value – remains the same. This seemingly ahistorical method of interpreting a work from the standpoint of the present rather than in the context of its historical conditions of production is consistent with Marx’s own method of critique. Marx, of course, never developed an aesthetic theory, but his critical philosophy insisted that it was an error ‘to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive’ (Grundrisse 107).

Modernism and Coherence, even while remaining steadfastly Adornian in its attempt to preserve the aesthetic negativity of the artworks it considers, betrays its desire for a positive praxis by positing social categories (Revolution, class struggle, labour, production) as the absent centres around which these modernist works cohere. If we consider Marx’s brief, tantalizing remarks on art in his introduction to the Grundrisse, this desire appears in a different light. ‘The charm of [the Greeks’] art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up … with the fact that the unripe social condition under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return’ (111). Whether or not the ‘charm’ of modernist poetry and narrative now depends on a nostalgia for a negative potential (that of class struggle and labour) that, given the class transformations of our postindustrial era, ‘can never return’ is a serious question for Marxist aesthetics and philosophy.

Durão’s book is remarkable in several respects, not least of which are its literary qualities. Few dissertations, or books based on dissertations, as this one is, are as enjoyable to read as Modernism and Coherence. Durão elevates the normally dry and mechanical review of literature to an aesthetic and theoretical form. The category of ‘coherence’, so important to the book’s overall theoretical development, acts as a leitmotiv that signals dialectical transformations of the critical positions in question.

Durão’s intention is not to provide a primer for an Adornian method, but it is nonetheless a masterful demonstration of a properly Adornian criticism, one that remains sensitive to the object of study and that preserves the tension between theory’s generality and texts’ particularities, even at the cost of inconclusiveness. As Durão points out in the first chapter, Adorno’s great unfinished work is not simply a theory of aesthetics, it is itself an aesthetic ‘object’ – a theory that is aesthetic. In ‘The Essay as Form’, Adorno describes critique as inseparable from the form of its thinking – the essay which takes culture, art, music, etc. as its object must recognise that the essay itself is the object being theorised, for the artwork is not an empirical object, but rather consists in the encounter with a subject, the subject’s immersion in the object. The successful essay is that which renders this encounter most faithfully into prose. In these terms, Durão’s book is a stunning success: each chapter takes the form of an essay which, rather than attempting to affix a determinate meaning to the objects in question (the poetry of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Joyce’s Ulysses, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory), boldly displays each work’s contradictions. By contraposing the various levels at which contradictory meanings cohere, Durão exposes the works’ essential negativity, their reluctance to surrender a positive meaning. These ‘four chapters of a negative aesthetics’ nowhere resemble a discourse on negative aesthetics. This is not to say that Durão lacks a theory of aesthetics, but rather that the form that theory takes in Modernism and Coherence is the appropriate one for the objects in question.

At times Durão’s readings seem overly analogical. He acknowledges this as a possible objection to his interpretation of Frost, and it also seems pertinent in relation to his reading of Ulysses. In this potential weakness, Modernism and Coherence manifests its own aesthetic negativity. It embodies a contradiction that continues to haunt Western Marxist literary criticism, one that might be described as the tension between an Adornian negative aesthetics and the Lukácsian impulse to identify a positive, emancipatory content in the artwork. Even criticism that focuses relentlessly on the contradictions of its object and refuses to acknowledge any positive content that might be reified into a defense of what merely exists must, if it is to remain Marxist, still insist on the ‘what is to be done?’ This means that a link must be established between the aesthetic form and social form. The difficulty of establishing proper mediations between the aesthetic and the social is seen in the prevalence of allegorical readings which require a logical leap of faith to maintain their coherence. At bottom, this is similar to the problem that Zizek confronts: the irreconciliability of the epistemological and ontological realms. Zizek’s solution is to view or think both spheres simultaneously, but this ‘parallax view’ leaves them unmediated.

Part of the difficulty seems to lie in the question of whether any mediation is possible between an artwork whose status as art depends on its negativity vis-à-vis the social totality, and positive social categories like labour or class struggle. Perhaps the answer is to betray Adorno by being more faithful to the notion of aesthetic negativity than he was himself. Neil Larsen has proposed that aesthetic mimesis, understood as ‘the [conscious] process whereby a subject mediates itself through an object’ (59), stands in opposition to value, whose movement and self-expansion is, conversely, an unconscious process whereby a reified objectivity mediates itself through labouring subjects, themselves objectified by the total process. Instead of insisting on art as a placeholder for Revolution, we might perceive art as a form of counterpraxis in which Revolution already insists.

9 November 2010

One comment

  1. An excellent, balanced, and quite useful review. One thing – poet Wallace Stevens’ last name is misspelled throughout the text. Not a big deal, but worth correcting.

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