‘Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New …


As a young student I happened to come across an analysis of the novel Around the World in Eighty Days. It was a potent work, argued the writer, because it managed to capture the spirit of a vanishing historical moment; a new-born and rapacious industrial capitalism was spreading around the world, setting down train-tracks on a global scale in order to facilitate its economic march. However, he went on, this process was not yet complete, had not yet been consolidated or standardised, for old-world forms lingered on the periphery still and perpetually threatened to encroach. For instance, one might be riding a train in North-Western America in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and have the rather unnerving experience of being attacked by the Native American tribes whose lands had been expropriated by the railroad barons. The tension, the haphazard excitement and the spirit of adventure of Around the World in Eighty Days was derived from this contradiction between old-world forms of being and the emergence of the new.

This was something of a watershed moment for me; one of the earliest glimmerings I received as to the true power of the historical materialist method. Here the writer wasn’t describing a phenomenon solely in terms of the solipsism of his own ethical or aesthetic sensibility (the analytical basis for most journalism today) – but was instead referencing the broader historical sweep and the manner in which its contradictions are distilled and exhibited in the aesthetic. The book in question was The Age of Capital, and its author – Eric Hobsbawm – had managed to provide me with that occasional and wonderful sense of frisson which comes from the encounter one has with an idea or thought which is both fecund and new.

And, though I have long since wearied of Hobsbawm’s politics (along with his Stalinist aspect, anyone who is described by Neil Kinnock as his ‘favourite Marxist’ is a questionable Marxist indeed) – nevertheless I was looking forward to his book Fractured Times. It was his last published work (Hobsbawm died in 2012) – and provides a broad overview of twentieth and early twenty-first century culture in a series of literary essays and speeches which have been culled from the final twenty years of Hobsbawm’s life (with the exception of the penultimate essay in the collection which dates from 1964). Themes include Hobsbawm’s musings on Jazz – a subject on which he is expert given the fact he began his career writing about it; his analysis of Conceptual Art and Art Nouveau; the changing role of the intellectual in public life including the ever more visible presence of women in the arena; two essays devoted to the emancipation of the Jews during the Enlightenment and their place in German history respectively; the relationship of sciences to arts in academia; an appreciation of the phenomenon of cultural festivals in a global context; a deconstruction of the pervasive myth of the American cowboy, and several other topics besides.  

But despite the intriguing selection, and despite the unquestionable, almost encyclopaedic depth of knowledge the author displays (complimented by an ability to extract some telling quote or statistic from the minutiae of detail contained in some long since buried historical document); despite these positives, the book itself is a disappointment. It is not bad per se. It is, in fact, almost worth reading. But it never invites that sense of frisson which comes from the encounter with the radical and the new. There is something lacklustre about the work on offer here; a pervading flatness, in both tone and content, for the whole project is underscored by a moribund conservatism. In the true conservative vein, Hobsbawm seems most at home when addressing the cultural forms of the past, yet appears to be, at best, baffled by those forms which inhere in the present – and at worst, actively repelled by them.

To take just a few examples. Hobsbawm’s analysis of literature in the modern age is based on two interrelated propositions. First, that humanity is now more literate as a whole than it hitherto had been; that the masses exhibit a higher level of literacy than ever before. Second, literature has been an object of ‘mechanical reproduction’ since the days of Gutenberg. Thus literature is configured to survive and even flourish in a society premised on mass consumerism in a way which certain other art forms were ill equipped to do. One should note at once the way in which Hobsbawm’s positive conclusion – that literature will continue to thrive – is undergirded by a heavy-handed technological determinism grafted to what appears in the analysis as an arbitrary fact – i.e., mass literacy. In other words, literature will survive and even flourish in the modern age – not because it is able to transmit what Hegel called ‘Geist’ or the world-historical spirit of the epoch – but because its technological basis in ‘mechanical reproduction’ coincides with the fact of mass literacy and consumption more generally.

Now, given these are his methodological premises, one is able to recognise the necessity of the conservatism which flows from them. Literature will flourish in the modern epoch – but this development is expressed first and foremostly in a ‘quantative rise’ (11) as opposed to a rise in the aesthetic quality of the medium itself. In actual fact, says Hobsbawm, the written word has ‘for some time been in retreat’ (11), partly in relation to the introduction of cinema and television, but also because of the distorting effect ‘the democratisation of written material’ (11) has on the integrity of the language, for it ‘must necessarily … lead to fragmentation through the rise of old and new vernacular literatures.’ (11) Even the emergence of English as a world language – which to some degree mediates an ever more globalised literature – is by no means culturally positive because it ‘has as little to do with the English literary language as the church Latin of the Middle Ages has to do with Virgil and Cicero.’ (12)

Hobsbawm’s conclusion is bleak. It speaks of fragmentation and fracture but at no point references the countervailing moment. It does not take into account trends in literature which have been fertilized by the interpenetration of cultural forms premised on the fact of a more integrated global economy; the manner in which, for instance, the myths and traditions of the rural provinces in third world regions such as Latin America have been fused with the latest artistic movements in the vast cosmopolitan hubs of Europe such as Paris and Berlin, generating new and experimental phenomena like Magical Realism. It doesn’t take into account the rise of great literature which is every bit as epic and totalising as the works of the Russians in the nineteenth century – consider, for example, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.

When Hobsbawm extends his analysis to music, the same deficit, the same myopia, is quite clearly in effect. Again our attention is drawn to a purely quantative increase in its presence. ‘At the end of the twentieth century we are living in a world saturated with music. Sounds accompany us everywhere, and particularly when we are waiting in closed spaces … the consumer society seems to consider silence a crime.’ (14) But this occurs at the expense of quality: ‘A certain exhaustion can also be observed today even in commercial mass music, an area that has been so lively, dynamic and creative in this century.’ (15) And why is that? ‘It has already been fundamentally revolutionised by electronics, which means that it is already largely independent of the inventive talent and technical skill of the artistic individual. The music of the twenty-first century will be mainly produced, and will reach our ears, without much human input.’(14)

Once more a crude technological determinism strikes the same jarring note. Literature in its individualised and ‘true’ aesthetic aspect is abstractly negated by an ever more pervasive system of mass-production and ‘the image’ (cinema/TV), while in the same vein the creative activity of individual musicians is extirpated by the influence of ‘electronics’ which divests them of their ‘input’. Hobsbawm’s analysis here is so poor and threadbare it is almost painful to read. On an empirical level, it is refutable many times over, when one acknowledges the impetus which electronic innovations have provided to traditional forms of music – consider the fusion achieved by the great gitano musician El Cameron, for instance, between a modern-electronic based sound and the raw and traditional flamenco voice of old; or, more broadly, consider the new genres of music which have emerged like hip-hop and which offer an ever enriched complex of poetry, soul, world music, rap, funk, salsa, blues, jazz and so on.

On the ontological level, the analysis is equally defunct. It involves the methodological presupposition that mediation – in the form of the ‘electronic’ – necessarily implies the corruption of some unadulterated and more authentic state. The anti-Hegelianism of this grates like a metal screw trailed across a glass mirror. In actual fact, every rung in the ladder of musical development implies such mediation; the creation of the organ inevitably mediated the sound of the vocal register – and from the purview of the seventh century traditionalist this surely would have detracted from the ‘unadulterated’ purity of the choir’s voices. Today, however, the music produced by an organist is considered the very apogee of dour convention. The difference between the two perspectives is not simply one of opinion but one which has been constituted historically. And what truly underpins Hobsbawm’s conservatism is precisely its lack of historicity. In a certain way, this is inevitable. If his finest cultural analysis tended to be derived, in the last analysis, from his appreciation of the historical contradiction between older and more traditional forms and a burgeoning industrial capitalism now that – in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR – he had reconciled himself to the fact that late capitalism is immutable and is no longer subject to fundamental historical change, is it not also inevitable that his analysis of its cultural forms attains a profoundly ahistorical character thereby, for it has ceased to be grounded on the contradiction between one epoch and the next? Hobsbawm’s method thus automatically regresses from one which is broadly historical materialist in character to a rather vulgar technological determinism as a result. And it is this which provides the basis for his thorough-going conservatism.

For the same reason, the best chapters in this book are those which are focused on the past. Hobsbawm comprehends, for instance, that some of the mystique and fascination which surrounds the Western genre is derived from the fact that the cowboys represented a more traditional form of life which was destined to perish – ‘so in the Argentina of Sarmiento, the tragic element in this struggle was clearly seen: for the progress of civilisation implied the destruction of values that were recognised as noble, heroic and admirable, but historically doomed.’ (275) He articulates this while at the same time providing the important caveat that the romanticised vision of the American West is very much a mythological creation – ‘the invented tradition of the West is entirely symbolic, in as much as it generalises the experience of a comparative handful of marginal people … local western newspapers were not filled with stories about bar-room fights, but about property values and business opportunities.’ (282)

The chapters on Jewish history are also good. His description of the way in which Enlightenment facilitated an explosion in the cultural and intellectual activity of an emancipated Jewry is persuasive; the granting of formal equality opened up the spheres of education and public office to Jews in a hitherto unheard of way – and yet, at the same time, ‘a certain degree of uneasiness in the relationship between them [Jews] and non-Jews’ (74) allowed for the type of intellectual creativity and rebellious sensibility which so often befits outsiders – those social elements which are never truly permitted to become full, card carrying members of the status quo, and whose thought is never allowed to ossify into the dogma of convention, attaining a lithe and flexible aspect therein.

A concomitant ability to perceive the Jews as a cultural process rather than a static entity allows Hobsbawm to remain alive to the fundamental developments in Jewish history and the pronounced differences in the ranks of those who subscribe to some overall form of Jewish identity – for instance ‘the conceptual distinction between Ostjuden (eastern Jews), i.e. the Jews living in the former kingdom of Poland … and the Westjuden (western Jews), i.e. specifically the Jews of the hereditary territories of the Habsburg monarchy.’ (91) The revolution of 1848 provides the historical criterion for this particular difference; for it facilitates a far greater level of integration on the part of ‘western’ Jews in the Habsburg territories, particularly in cities like Vienna and Budapest, and who then tended to distinguish themselves from the more traditional Yiddish speaking elements as ‘middle-Europeans’.  

But unfortunately these few bright spots do little to detract from the reactionary thrust of Hobsbawm’s thought. The conservatism itself isn’t entirely without merit, of course. It provides the basis for an excoriating critique of conceptual art and the Turner prize which I wholly sympathise with. And few would deny that the demand for mass-commodity production geared toward the realisation of capital, and facilitated by advanced industrial capacities, has had an incredibly detrimental effect on the production of art, generating a crass commercialism which infects music, film, literature and other spheres.

But Hobsbawm’s problem lies in the fact that this is all he sees. For the main part, he cannot recognise the more universal and totalising aspects which inhere in contemporary culture. His is very much the wistful perspective of the provincial intellectual, with trace elements of romanticism, who looks back toward an idealised past in which the individual proprietor (or artist) produced in isolation, and whose product was to be lost to them amid the furore of industrialisation and the fragmentation of the labour process which set the basis for it. Such a perspective regards the phenomenon of capitalist industrialisation mournfully, balefully – but above all one-sidedly – for it can locate within it a loss of totality but never its redemption. Hobsbawm, on the political level, has long since ceased to recognise the one social agent which is driven to reclaim the whole in the midst of the fragmentation which the process of capital accumulation unleashes; he has ceased to regard historical development from the purview of the only social power which is capable of driving it forward – the modern proletariat. Concomitantly, those examples in culture which mediate this process as it occurs at the level of social being must, of necessity, remain forever invisible to his eyes.

Fractured Times is a fractured work. Above all it demonstrates that one pays not only an ethical price for the abandonment of Marxism, but also a methodological one. The sheer deterioration in Hobsbawm’s method evinces nothing short of an intellectual senility – and one can’t help but suspect that the embrace of the establishment and an award from the Queen provide scant compensation.

1 December 2013

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