The Twin Sides of Antimodernism: A Response to Paul Chan’s Progress as Regression

Pac Pobric [1]

It is a common and, at this point, hopelessly exhausted “postmodern” (read: antimodern) critique that the period of modernity, as the legacy of the Enlightenment, was a fundamentally conservative set of cultural and political moments; that its cultural tools (the historical avant-garde) and its political peaks (the French Revolution, for example) were nothing more than the mechanisms of oppressive ideology. This thoroughly routinized caricature isn’t worth summarization. We know it well enough. We’ve done the background reading and we get it. See Charles Jencks for a synopsis.

But this critique is losing popular steam. If we still don’t have an answer to Hal Foster’s 1996 question, “Whatever Happened to Postmodernism?”[2] we do at least know, fifteen years later, that it is definitively gone. (See, for example, Foster’s relatively recent October Questionnaire on the contemporary or e-Flux’s own publication of a double issue devoted to a similar set of problems.[3]) Whatever it is that post-postmodernism finally distinguishes itself to be, we can only hope that Paul Chan’s recent article in e-flux, “Progress as Regress,” does not become characteristic of it.[4] Maintaining the “postmodern” stance on modernity that was the hallmark of a previous generation of thinkers, Chan holds strong to the simplistic (and certainly institutionalized) notion that the political Right simply rehearses a modernist myth celebrating “freedom” as a façade for ideological supremacy.

The foundation of Chan’s argument is as follows: the contemporary Right (specifically the Tea Party), in their claiming the right of origin as a means to “assert a demand for first rights” and “proclaim dominion over that which follows,” are the true legacy of modernism. What this “populist insurgency represents,” in his argument, is the idea that “history amounts to nothing but the domination of nature and society insofar as domination is the true face of progress. The way forward is by going back. And what is modern about this cast of modernity is how power is exercised to rule in the name of origin.”[5]

Though not a lengthy quote, Chan’s statement still deserves a close reading, for it poses some dangerous implications. To recap, the conservative tendencies in the United States (Sarah Palin and company) can be traced historically to a modernist desire, which Chan implies should have been hushed by “postmodern” and contemporary advances, that they reinvigorate: the craving to exercise power over “nature and society.” This notion, which Chan sees as tied to an impulse for authority “in the name of origin” is the target of his supposedly “progressive critique.” For the Right, “the way forward is by going back.” Regression is simply retreat.

But Chan’s object of study (the Republican Party and its various affiliates) shatters the lens through which he views it. It is precisely because, in our contemporary moment, Chan believes in a redemption of certain enervated  “postmodern” foundations that his antimodernism is simply the other side of the coin of the Right’s aversion to progress. But perhaps I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Since the term “modern” only appears four times in his essay, and the term “postmodern” is absolutely absent, one may wonder how these ideas come to subtextually bear upon Chan’s argument. The fact is that the devil is in the details. Of primary concern are the non-dialectical foundations that serve as the vehicle for his essay. This is the bedrock upon which Chan’s own regression falters.

To be fair, Chan is certainly correct to imply that the tendencies of something like the Tea Party are decidedly contemporary. Let us remember that the Right’s ideology is, to emphasize Chan’s phrasing, “a contemporary manifestation of a modernist notion.” But this only serves to complicate the rest of his reasoning. To claim that the contemporary is the end of modernity as such is to lapse into one of the following two categories: mania or melancholia. If the former is characterized by someone like Chan, whose celebration of the end of the Enlightenment’s legacy, with its perceived conservative foundations and oppressive ideological machinery puts him in Jencks’s camp, then the other side of the coin is melancholia. Characterized, in Freudian terms, by an identification of the ego with the object of loss, the melancholic disposition is one which cannot properly come to terms with what has passed. As Yve-Alain Bois has already pointed out in another context, these two tendencies are the twin sides of the antimodern sensibility. They are its Jekyll and Hyde.

The fact of the matter, however, is that both have the deepest set of feelings for something that never existed in the way that they understand it. If the Right cannot come to terms with the end of an invented memory of Reagan, for example, then Chan’s celebrations are for the close of a period of history that is similarly misconstrued. Ahistoricism—the inability to recognize one’s place in a historical chain—is in fact the essence of the antimodern. If, as Benjamin Buchloh has pointed out, the post-WWI Rappel at l’Ordre was a “carnival of eclecticism” which “becomes transparent as a masquerade of alienation from history,” something similar is happening in the contemporary period. An inability to come to terms with certain failures of the progressive politics of modernity breeds a twin ahistorical reaction to its complexity, simplifying its history as merely progressive or regressive.[6]

Since the twin sides of a coin can never face one another, one pole of antimodernism can never perceive the character of its other. This is why Chan’s reading of the Right as having modernist inclinations is so skewed. To keep things brief, I will simply highlight one glaring problem: If modern thinkers (as well as painters, composers, etc.) have always been deeply concerned with critically engaging their historical conditions of possibility in order to understand precisely what is not possible in a particular moment, then the Tea Party is fundamentally antimodern.[7] Modern thought (whether it be that of Picasso or Duchamp, to name two of the dialectical opposites of modernity) has always been deeply entangled within and ready to address the problems of history in a way that antimodernism is deeply unable to. If the Tea Party is interested, as Chan points out, in reviving the gold standard, that alone may be enough to highlight their absolute inability to critically understand the way in which history has moved beyond anything even remotely related to this possibility. Refusal of the responsibility to work through the problems of history and to accept its outcomes is a hallmark of “postmodernism” and the undiagnosed plague of “the contemporary.” There is therefore nothing “modernist” about the Right. Rather, it is deeply antimodern precisely in its inability to learn from and develop upon the movement of history.

Chan’s regression, however, is cut from the same antihistorical cloth. If the contemporary Right seeks, in his words, that “arid patch of mythological land” that existed “before the irreconcilability between citizen and country came into being,” Chan’s demand for progress is similarly shrouded in mystery.  He takes for granted that the road to progress is not backward but forward, whatever that means. It cannot be any more simplistic of an argument: if the Right wants to go in reverse, the Left must move ahead. The fundamental problem with this critique—the trouble which will govern all others—is that it is entirely unclear what progress would even mean in the first place. The question of freedom is an open one, or, to be more exact, it is one occluded by years of confused Leftist clutter. Our inability to pinpoint what freedom is or could be is another symptom of the ahistorical nature of antimodernity.

If echoes of Adorno abound in Chan’s essay, they are nothing more than the sounds of Adorno shrieking in horror. Like many antimodern readers of the thinker, Chan seems to have missed that the first two words in the title of Adorno and Horkheimer’s landmark critique of the Enlightenment is “Dialectic of.” Instead of offering a complex analysis of the Right vis-à-vis a dialectical method, Chan’s deeply rooted antimodernism is simply presented as the antidote to the Tea Party.

If the dialectic is so deeply intrinsic to modernism’s engine, it is its absence that marks not only the “postmodern” but also the contemporary period. The celebrations or lamentations of the end of modernist thinking are equally confused and pathological. If Chan is unable to view his object dialectically, if his framework is torn down by the object he frames, this is because a coin cannot see its backside. The Right is therefore equally unable to view its reverse. My suggestion is not that a pure objectivity is possible; I do not mean to say that we can hold the coin in one hand and examine it with disinterest. This is neither possible nor desirable. As Adorno knew, critical theory is itself a symptom of regression. For Adorno, the modernist, contemporary theoretical regressions, which were beginning to grip philosophy just as Adorno’s life was drawing to a close, would be most evident in Chan’s antimodernism.

During a panel discussion on critical theory’s relation to art hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society this past November, Gregg Horowitz perceptively pointed out that “we need the paradoxical demand of a past that will steer us toward a future that we cannot anticipate.” Later, he quoted Horkheimer: “The more eager one is to break the taboo, the more harmless it is…. One must be very down to earth, measured, and considered so that the impression that something or other is not possible does not arise.” Elaborating on this thought, Horowitz pointed out that “what Horkheimer calls for here is a toning down of the rhetoric, because with every moment of melodrama in the effort to cancel the present moment, we render the weight of the present moment insignificant.”[8] If it is not the mania or melancholia of a so-called “progressive” or “regressive” contemporary analysis that we need, it is instead the ability to reinvestigate our situations dialectically; to mourn our losses instead of manically or melancholically dealing with them. What we need is a recognition that our period—the period of modernity that persists despite all celebrations and lamentations of its end—is the period of self-reflexivity brought to us by capital. It is a gift of history, a problem to work through and push beyond. It is something rich in potential that has yet to be realized. To attempt to move beyond our time is not to dismiss it, it is to recognize that it is still with us.

——

1 This essay’s foundations lie in Yve-Alain Bois’s defense of painting in “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Painting as Model (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 229-244. Mapping the motivations for the “end of art,” Bois argues convincingly that painting (and, he implies, modernity) still has problems to pursue and work through. He therefore rejects the twin impulses of mania and melancholia in “postmodernism,” which is for Bois antimodernism, and argues that though a certain match in modern painting may be over, the game still continues. This essay seeks to radicalize his analysis.

2 Foster, Hal. “Whatever Happened to Postmodernism?” Return of the Real. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996. 205-226.

3 Foster, Hal, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’” October, no. 130, Fall, 2009, 3–124. In December of 2009 and January of 2010, e-Flux published two issues asking “What is Contemporary Art?” See volume one: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/11 and volume two: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/issue/12

4 Paul Chan. “Progress as Regress,” in e-Flux Journal no. 22, January, 2011, np. (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/207)

5 Ibid.

6 See Buchloh’s perceptive analysis of the Return to Order in “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October no. 16 (Spring 1981), 54. That his analysis of this period in Western art is also concerned with locating its importance to the regressive returns to figuration of the 1970s and 80s makes this quote particularly apt.

7 Hal Foster, in this regard, points out that the utopian dimension of the avant-garde “proposes not what can be so much as what cannot be [done]” in a particular moment. He points to the example of De Stijl. See Foster, “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 16.

8 See Horowitz’s remarks at http://platypus1917.org/2011/01/01/the-relevance-of-critical-theory-to-art-today/.

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4 comments

  1. Thersites

    Does the left really need to go further with the ‘task of mourning’?

    Surely this is a time for rigorous critique of the failings of the financial system and the implications of Capital. Can art (or the arts) extricate itself from the instrumentality of capitalism or is it doomed to prop up with cultural capital those who are struggling to maintain their hegemony through successful exploitation?

    That’s a relevant question for me. And the high period of modernism (or especially the avant-gardes) was a moment of belief in an affirmative answer to that question.

  2. J. A. Hyde

    I enjoyed reading this, thank you. Heading over to the Paul Chan article. I’m not an expert on the subject, and I haven’t read most of the books/articles you reference. Full disclosure aside…it seems bizarre that your argument’ rests on the metaphor of the “two-sided coin.” Again, didn’t read Yve-Alain Bois, but isn’t it sloppy to reason: “Since the twin sides of a coin can never face one another, one pole of antimodernism can never perceive the character of its other. This is why Chan’s reading…” Where the metaphor is a justification in itself?

    • Pac Pobric

      Thanks for reading. I’m happy to respond to your critique, but I’m not sure I’m understanding exactly what you are asking. Can you clarify a little bit?

  3. Mikey Foucault

    So, you’re not a republican?

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