Some books are like barometers: interesting chiefly for what they tell us about the prevailing climate. Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism is a case in point. Readers who care about literary modernism will find little to detain them in this book. The names of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and H.D.-the authors with whom Rainey is primarily concerned-recur frequently. But there is not a single sentence that really engages their work. Instead, Rainey, proposing a counternarrative to trace the institutional profile of modernism, tells us how much it cost to buy a copy of Ulysses when it was published in 1922, how much money Harriet Shaw Weaver set aside to help Ezra Pound, and why the Dial won out over other magazines in the competition to publish The Waste Land in America. Patronage, he tells us at one point, was the foundation of the institutional structure of the avant-garde.
Rainey is really not interested in novels or poems. He is quite frank about this. Some readers, especially those with literary critical training, will find far too little of the detailed examination of actual works that is sometimes held to be the only important or worthwhile form of critical activity. Rainey does not make this error. I can certify that his book is 100 percent free of examination-detailed or otherwise-of any actual works. On the contrary, he is interested exclusively in what he calls cultural production. This by now hoary bit of academic jargon marks Institutions of Modernism as the offspring of cultural studies, that popular pseudo-discipline that resulted from crossing Marxist animus with deconstructionist verbiage.
Rainey is quite good at it-an A or A-for consistency, I’d say, if only a C for originality. For example, referring to the institutional field of cultural production that rapidly and radically transformed . . . the rigid dichotomy between high’ and low’ (for academics like Professor Rainey, dichotomies are always rigid and high art always needs scare quotes), he tells us that Modernism’s ambiguous achievement . . . was to probe the interstices dividing that variegated field and to forge within it a strange and unprecedented space for cultural production, one that did indeed entail a certain retreat from the domain of public culture, but one that also continued to overlap and intersect with the public realm in a variety of contradictory ways.
Perhaps you thought that the classic works of high modernism-works like Ulysses or The Waste Land -were important because they had something pertinent to say about the spiritual conundrums of modern life. Forget about it. Rainey comes bearing the new, academically orthodox, message that modernism . . . is a strategy whereby the work of art invites and solicits its commodification, but does so in such a way that it becomes a commodity of a special sort, one that is temporarily exempted from the exigencies of immediate consumption prevalent within the larger cultural economy and instead is integrated into a different economic circuit of patronage, collecting, speculation, and investment. These fragments he has shored against his ruin.
Cultural Studies of the sort exhibited by Institutions of Modernism is all the rage in American and English universities (Rainey teaches at the University of York in England). This is primarily because it has proven to be a powerful aid in the effort to avoid dealing with works of art or literature as products of the human spirit: aesthetic objects that move us with their intricately wrought beauty, humor, and insight.
Once readers start paying attention to the works themselves-to the way they are made, to what they have to tell us-they will inevitably stop taking critics who set themselves up in competition with the works very seriously. I mean critics who, like Rainey, love to begin sentences with formulations like the following: If it is true, as the logic of poststructuralism asserts, that every erasure will leave its trace in such a way that the very thing one is trying to exclude is disclosed as the hidden center of a contaminated order, then . . . Then what? Then an absence is as good as a presence, a denial is really a veiled affirmation, night is day, black is white, and the critic can say whatever he wants about any subject under the sun because what matters to him are not works of art but the progress of his stern-sounding word games. Let him emit words like commodification, contamination, and subversion at regular intervals and he is content.
Not that these games are necessarily easy to play. They require a certain kind of rhetorical skill and, to play it as Rainey does, considerable scholarship. Rainey has expended a lot of effort to write this book. He knows how much the different versions of the first edition of Ulysses cost in francs, pounds, and dollars, how much Eliot received from all sources for publishing The Waste Land and how that compares with the per capita income of the United States at the time, and how much Ezra Pound’s first book had increased in value by 1924. Of course, Rainey bothered to amass such interesting facts not simply to provide a socioeconomic context for modernism but to weave his counternarrative in which modernism is both a powerful critique of commodity capitalism and a movement that mortgaged that critique in the future.
Rainey’s one real historical contribution, showing how Ezra Pound’s infatuation with fascism began in the early 1920s (and not, as has been thought, in the years following the market crash of 1929), doesn’t contribute much to this counternarrative. But by the time he gets around to it in his fourth chapter, one hardly notices. Besides, discussion of Pound’s Fascist sympathies allows Rainey to tell us that, through Pound, the modernist culture of patronage was assimilated to the emerging culture of fascism. The thought that Pound’s embrace of Mussolini might count as a betrayal of modernism never seems to occur to Rainey-but that is perhaps just as well, since it would be bound to disturb the pleasing certainty of his adversarial counternarrative.
For anyone interested in what chic academic criticism looks and feels like today, Institutions of Modernism is as good a place to start as any. The spiritual aridity, the rebarbative prose, the programmatic subordination of literature to an ideological agenda-all make the book an exemplar of the discipline, which is to say, they make it an exemplar of a discipline in crisis, a discipline that has lost its way. The fact that the book was published in Yale’s Henry McBride Series on Modernism and Modernity adds to the shame of it.
Henry McBride (1867-1962) was an important and immensely congenial art critic whose columns in the New York Sun and the Dial did a great deal to introduce the American audience to modernist art. As a note on the series at the beginning of Rainey’s book observes, Henry McBride discussed difficult artistic issues in a relaxed, engaging, yet informed style, one that is still a model of clarity, grace, and critical responsiveness.
In other words, his criticism was the polar opposite of the grim, politicized irrelevancies that Rainey provides. The fact that Rainey is General Editor of the Henry McBride Series adds insult to injury. McBride was famous for his easygoing humor, so perhaps he is smiling at the irony of it all instead of rolling over in his grave. No doubt Rainey regards the publication of his book in this series as a gesture subversive of an outmoded aestheticism. For the rest of us, however-and above all for the patrons of this series commemorating the achievement of a great critic- Institutions of Modernism must be regarded as an impertinence that is as offensive as it is calculated to be.
Roger Kimball is Managing Editor of New Criterion.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?