Modernism or Barbarism

The answer to the miseries of modernity isn't to reject modernity — it's to demand more of it.

A still from Dzinga Vertov's 1929 modernist montage Man with a Movie Camera.

When I was an undergraduate, modernity was everything we were taught to despise: totalizing, technocratic, rationalizing. It was the impersonal force that organized Africa into colonies and the motor behind the mechanized doom of fascism. As Theodor Adorno wrote, the logic of modernity ends in a death camp, or the mathematics of a strategic bombing campaign — in human beings becoming abstract numbers in a computerized death count.

Marxism itself is not immune from these kinds of critiques. As writers in the Frankfurt School maintained, our problem in advanced industrial societies is to be treated as an instrument, a thing — a problem as deeply felt in the Soviet Union as the United States. As Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, commented, Marxism is just another word for rendering people into resources.

Indeed, much of the justification for modernity by even Marxist economists is that for all its brutality, modernity makes production more efficient and thus affords us the possibility of plenty. Yet, these critics charge, the processes that make us free enslave us as inputs to the very machines that were supposed to free us. One person’s utopia of material plenty is dependent upon another’s swing shift at the factory.

One might think Marshall Berman would have good reason to distrust the modern: growing up in the Bronx, his neighborhood was decimated in what was one of the most violent processes of urban destruction in the twentieth century. Politely referred to as “urban renewal,” a process of urban modernization that integrated dense neighborhoods within the expanding US highway system, it often targeted low-income neighborhoods, wiping out vibrant ethnic cultures, decimating small business districts, and breaking up support networks and communities — all in the name of that most modern ideal, Progress.

The Bronx went from being a multi-ethnic neighborhood of solid working- and middle-class apartment complexes to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States. Berman describes the destruction of his old neighborhood in haunting detail:

The foreground was broken. Now many tenements and apartment houses are cracked, burnt, split apart, caved in. Whole blocks have vanished or disintegrated into wreckage and debris. On other blocks, only a single house is left, with rubble all around . . . and if you examine its curves and details, you can often see that once, maybe not long ago, this sole survivor was once quite grand.

Berman even invented a word for what the process of urban renewal did to his city: urbicide, the planned murder of a city.

And yet in one of Berman’s most elegant essays in this posthumously published collection, Modernism in the Streets: A Life and Times in Essays, edited by David Marcus and Shellie Sclan, he writes a tribute to the Faustian grandeur of the man who did this to his beloved Bronx, Robert Moses — the man Robert Fitch memorably accused of “assassinating” New York.

To understand Berman’s seemingly paradoxical view of the processes of modernity — how he could write perhaps the most generous tribute I’ve read to the man who quite literally drove a tractor through his beloved Bronx — we have to remember that Berman was a dialectical thinker, one who invited us to understand the warp and weft of modernity through a Marxian lens.

Marxism for Grownups

We can start with his own re-reading of the Communist Manifesto, perhaps the most often read, and misunderstood, pamphlet of all time. Too often, Marxism is read much like one would read a pulp detective novel. There are the good guys (workers) and the bad guys (capitalism), and it all wraps up rather neatly for a group picture and a smoke at the end, after an epic shootout by gunslingers on either side. This binary, comic-book view of capitalism and communism has been operative for its supporters and detractors alike.

Yet Berman has another way of reading the Manifesto, one he charges is only for “grown-ups” who can handle the nuance. He invites us to read Marx’s most polemic text as a process of open-ended contradictions, one that has no resolution outside its own dizzying acts of destruction.

Berman quotes the Manifesto‘s passage from which he takes the title of his most famous book, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and there by the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society . . . Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

There is the sense of being caught up in something “magical and uncanny,” a process that is both terrifying and exhilarating. It’s not enough to simply say that Marx appreciates the productive force of capitalism; he appreciates its destructive force as well, the sublime terror of a new order brought into the world, an order that is itself unstable, promethean, in a constant process of renewal and destruction. “All that is solid melts into air” is both a warning but also a promise.

What is remarkable about Berman is not just his perception of Marx as a dialectical thinker. For Marx, the crucial difference between capitalism and feudalism is not just that they both exploit people and resources, but how this exploitation takes place.

Capitalism is not only unique insofar as it hides its exploitation through the veneer of equal exchange between workers and owners. Capitalists must also constantly revolutionize production through time, space, and technology to produce more value: automating factories, moving the colossus of production around the world, transforming food into giant factories in the field, revolutionizing the human body through pharmacology.

This experience, however, cannot just be expressed through surplus value equations or graphs depicting the rate of exploitation. At some point, as Hegel famously said, quantity becomes quality: capitalism’s constant revolution of the means of production and circulation produces a radical new subjectivity, a new way of seeing, a new kind of person.

Marx, for Berman, was not only modern, but a modernist, someone who self-reflexively experienced and wrote about the subjective world of industrial capitalism.

Berman recognized this even at the level of Marx’s sentences: Marx “was the first to invent a prose style” that brought the “perilous creativity” — even brutal creativity — of capitalism to life. As Berman points out, the sentences in the Manifesto are relentlessly dialectic, they lunge and fall back on themselves before leaping to a new wonder — and terror — produced by the rapacious will of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.

For Berman, to read the Manifesto is not only to understand capitalism’s destructive allure, but to feel it as well.

Caught Up in the Flux

There is a primal scene in All That is Solid that brings to life the new experience of feeling modern. As the prototype of the urban renewal that smashed through the Bronx, architect Baron Haussmann obliterated the small medieval neighborhoods of Paris into the grand, sensual nineteenth-century boulevards we see today in postcards. This destruction of the old Paris was also the opening of new visual and public spaces — old neighborhoods were literally torn open, and pedestrians could walk on café-lined streets through the entire city (as could troops and artillery should there be another communard insurrection).

Berman meditates on the meaning of these new, modern streets and their social spaces of cafes and restaurants through the Baudelaire poem, “The Eyes of the Poor,” in which a middle-class couple is observed eating a luxurious meal by a beggar, perhaps one recently displaced by Haussmann’s “modernization.”

“What did the boulevards do to the people who came to fill them?” Berman asks. “Caught in up in its immense and endless flux,” the boulevard becomes a place to see and be seen, a place of “amorous display,” where one showed oneself and one’s fantasy of life to others to a new modern “family of eyes.”

This play of spectacle and fantasy, where the flaneur meets the window display, cannot exist long without the repressed reality creaking through. The couple in Baudelaire’s poem, having gone to the café to experience the luminous pleasure of grand boulevard, are confronted by a destitute father and his two children who gaze into the café to marvel at the sumptuous food and ambience. The woman is horrified and wants to ask the maître’d to force them away from the window. The man is moved by the family’s rags, while also disgusted by both his romantic partner, and the feast they share between the two of them.

This brief exchange, for Berman, is the both the promise and the unique subjectivity of the modern.

Not only is there the moment of self-reflection by the man, where he is forced to see himself through the eyes of another; there are also the eyes of the poor, separated only by a slim pane of glass from the food and comforts of a good life. And despite the man’s liberal sentimentality and the woman’s right-wing barbarism, Berman sees this interaction as the shock, disequilibrium, and promise of both the art and architecture of modernism, bringing both pleasure and dis-ease of modern life into contact.

Returning to the view from the Third Avenue Bridge, Berman relates how, driving through the Bronx in the late 1970s, one sees simultaneously the “magical aura” of Manhattan and the burning hellscape on the other side. This twin view, this double vision, this forward and backwards motion through space and time is the strange vitality of modernity and its unique historical experience.

From the Ruins, Yet Not Ruined

As part of Berman’s insistence that the violent shocks of modernity produce new, radical subjectivities, he devotes a major portion of the book to chronicling how hip-hop and street art emerged out of the ashes of a devastated Bronx. “Because of its misery and anguish — the Bronx became more culturally creative in death than in life,” Berman writes.

Starting with the “bold and adventurous visual language” of subway and ruin graffiti, Berman makes the argument that graffiti throw-ups and blockbusters are not just visual litter, but attempts to communicate with the wider city — which in turn sparked a costly, destructive, and even deadly conflict with city agencies that criminalized such public art.

The conflict over the public space that graffiti provoked for Berman was much like the Baudelaire poem, in which the site and presence of the poor, suddenly erupting into the streets, creates a panic for the bourgeois order: their own processes of development have summoned forth voices that they cannot control and do not understand.

Moving from graffiti to hip-hop, Berman muses on the most famous hip-hop song to emerge from 1980’s Bronx, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”:

What was “the message”? Maybe, We can be home in the middle of the end of the world. Or maybe, We come from ruins, but we are not ruined. The meta-message is something like this: Not only social disintegration, but even existential desperation, can be sources of life and creative energy.

The view from the bridge, while disorienting and perhaps chaotic, is also the starting point for new possibilities, new ways of seeing. “Modernism in the streets” is not a claim about formal style or literary genre, but a recognition of the way the urban maelstrom enlarges the sensorium, opens doors for new perceptions, and reorganizes mental life.

More, Always More Modernity

Three of Berman’s most touching essays in the collection are about twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals: Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, and Franz Kafka, all of whom lived through and died of the violent contradictions of modernity.

The longest and most illuminating of the essays is on the life of Lukács, the Hungarian communist most famous for identifying reification as the central subjective experience of life under capitalism. For Lukács, capitalism does not merely exploit our labor but also fragments our subjectivity and turns the processes of life into inanimate objects: our labor, our social reproduction, our imaginations.

Factories and bureaucratic offices are not merely centers of production and reproduction, but ideological apparatuses that transform us into things. Indeed, “reificiation” is a poor translation from the German for “process by which a human being is transformed into a thing.”

The experience of life under capitalism is one of passivity, to be a mechanical part for a mechanical system. And yet, unlike those who would wish to make the machines simply stop, Lukács believed that the role of the working class is to be both objects and subjects of capitalism, to understand the way they’ve been reified but also to develop their own intellectual and emotional standpoint: what we refer to as “class consciousness.”

For Lukács, the vehicle for this new form of subjectivity was to be the revolutionary party, one that could transform modern life from the factory to the apartment complex to the field: “the economy,” Berman explains, “won’t be a machine running on its own momentum toward its own goals, but a structure of concrete decisions that men and women make freely about how they want to live and fulfill their needs.” The answer for the problems of modernity, for Lukács, was a radical new form of modernity, the revolutionary party and the workers’ council.

Yet like many other of Berman’s heroes of modernity, Lukács spent a great deal of his life in prison, first in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then in the prisons of Stalinist Hungary, after the brief-lived 1956 revolution. Lukács would come to recant much of his youthful work and go on to write literary criticism that seemed to advance Soviet orthodoxy, denouncing modernism as the excesses of a decadent bourgeoisie and Kafka as “mental abnormality.”

Yet as with much of Berman’s writing, he is always ready to offer any subject a second act, or even a third or fourth. Lukács denounces his earlier denunciation: “I was wrong,” he was reported to have said from Dracula’s castle, which the Soviet authorities transformed into a prison. “Kafka was a realist after all.”

Berman’s final assessment of Lukács is much like his assessment of modernity itself: “it can offer no final epiphany, only more layers under layers and wheels within wheels, more … enticing and infuriating blend of blindness and insight.” What is heroic about Lukács is much like what is heroic in modernity: not in some final moral gesture or intellectual consistency, but rather in the “demands he made on modern art, on modern politics, on the whole of modern life” that it conform to our grandest desires and most utopian dreams.

That Lukács ended as a victim of the modern nightmare of Stalinism is no more ironic than Walter Benjamin ending as the victim of fascism. Modernity is an open-ended process that ends badly usually only when someone declares it complete.

Race and the Modern

Berman’s optimistic and open-ended processes of modernity can, however, sometimes elide the racial structures through which the modern world came into being. In his essay on the infamous 1927 film The Jazz Singer, Berman celebrates the Jewish “jazz singer’s” use of blackface as part of modern self-making.

Berman is absolutely correct to point out that The Jazz Singer is an important text on the meaning of modernity. Jackie Rabinowitz, the teenage son of an immigrant ultraorthodox cantor, runs off to be a jazz singer after his authoritarian father beats him for singing “raggy time songs,” in a Hester Street saloon.

Rabinowitz drops his Jewish last name, his father’s beard, and, dressed in fashionable modern suits, swivels his hips and sings for cabaret audiences while eagerly trying to make his “break.” His final act, and identity crisis, occurs when “blacking up” to perform “My Mammy” at the invitation of his goyishe girlfriend Mary Dale, while his father lay dying of grief the night before Yom Kippur.

Will he sing Jewish songs for his dying father, or go on stage? Will he return to his father’s shtetl ways or embrace his new modern subjectivity as a man with no past, no essential identity, who can be black one minute and white another?

Weighing the many fragments of his identity, Berman comments that this is both the promise and predicament of modern self-hood: only by “putting on someone’s face” can he recognize his own.

Blackface, for Berman, is part of the ongoing romance of marginality, from which Jews produced a mass culture of multiethnic liberalism. Modernity, in this story, frees Robin/Rabinowitz from his ghetto and shtetl past, allows him to make a truly universal culture that allows for the inclusion of everyone.

Yet modernity has never been a universal story, from the gunboats of Western imperialism to the plantations of the American South. Blackface minstrelsy is only part of this cultural tale. While Robin/Rabinowitz becomes a modern person, he can only do so in the anti-immigrant, antiSemitic cauldron of 1920s America by defining his modernity against imagined primitivism of blackness.

By donning blackface, Robin/Rabinowitz declares that he can become anything — precisely because he can no longer be defined as black. Whiteness is literally and figuratively one face of the modern world, one that allows entrance to some while denying others, one that believes egalitarianism and freedom is something that can only be preserved by restricting it.

While Berman is aware that African Americans were being lynched while Robin/Rabinowitz performs “My Mammy,” that these two acts may be correlated if not causally linked does not make into his essay. Rather than see Jolson’s performance as part of the “liquidity” of modern self-formation and the beginnings of a multicultural politics, the reactionary and assimilationist politics of The Jazz Singer argues for a far bleaker scenario: that modernity can only be secured by constructing an Other as a primitive.

The Prison or the Grand Boulevard

Berman’s dubious reading of The Jazz Singer does not however, dampen my overall enthusiasm for the collection of essays. As Berman himself would say, the response to the crisis of modernity is more modernity.

The problem with The Jazz Singer is not only that it’s racist; its modernity is far too narrow. Rather than the urban maelstrom of 1980s Times Square, one of Berman’s favorite subjects, the modernity embraced by Robin/Rabinowitz is sanitized, soft-jazz versions of black music.

Indeed, it is the broadness and scale of Berman’s vision of modernity that is the power of this collection. He shows how the fate of a radical Jewish intellectual from the Bronx is tied with the early hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash, and both are tied to the older history of urban uprisings and displacements of revolutionary France, the Bolshevik Revolution, and other “shouts in the street” from which Berman takes his counter-culture of modernism. Robin/Rabinowitz would have done better to have just taken the next train to Harlem rather than perform for the anodyne stage of Broadway. Berman’s impulses of solidarity are correct, but Robin/Rabinowitz is no Jacobin, black or white.

W. E. B. Du Bois said as much in his essay Souls of White Folk, that among all ideas of the modern world, race has had the most dreaded material continuity.  And yet as C. L. R. James reminds us, the slaves of San Domingue were also the first modern proletariat and Toussaint L’Ouverture the first modern revolutionary, who saw his world in much the same way Berman understands the ruins of his Bronx: there is no way out but through the awful contradictions of the modern world. Grandmaster Flash is one of the important voices of a self-fashioning, creative urban modernity, as were the politics and stylistics of the Black Panther Party and their Harlem Renaissance pre-cursor, the African Blood Brotherhood.

It is a lesson for which we are in dire need today. It is continually heartbreaking that Berman is not alive to offer commentary on the Donald Trump era. In response to the miseries brought by the bourgeois modernity of a globalized elite, the answer increasingly comes in shape of demagogues who would drag us back into the past, to the isolating languages of tribe and race; the modernity of a high-tech prison or a giant border wall.

Trump, Marine Le Pen of France, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, and other far-right politicians offer solutions to the modern world designed precisely to stop the chance encounters such as Baudelaire describes in Paris, or Berman tracks with the rise of hip-hop out of the ashes of the Bronx. They promise us all the ruin of modernity with none of the possibility.

If Berman were still alive today, his response to Trump’s “American carnage” would not be an insistence that “America is Already Great,” but rather that the solution to America’s miseries can be found literally in the gears of the crisis.

Automation could provide the plenty to give us all lives of leisure; the climate crisis could push us to live in denser, more populous cities powered by renewable energy; the breakdown of the family could lead to a more expansive notion of child care and sexuality; the breakdown of borders could lead to new solidarities across the globe. Berman’s interest, perhaps even nostalgia, for modernism is the desire to think big, to imagine bold solutions for economic and political crises.

Nearly all the lights of modernist literature, whether fascists such as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis or socialists such as Richard Wright and Muriel Rukeyser, felt that a grand transformation of society was not just possible, but that it was the only inevitable solution for the decay of liberalism. Whether or not we have modernist authors on the Left who are willing to lead the way, the crisis is the same: we will have modernism or barbarism.