Lukács's Critique of Modernism

The European nation-states’ successful monopolization of historico-political discourse roughly coincides not necessarily or simply with the permanent stabilization of national territorial borders, but rather with the permanent stabilization of identities and identifications, the invention and consolidation of nationness-, when the process of developing a collective experience of national simultaneity—not simply as an idea, but as reality—had largely come to an end. At this stage, what was imagined was no longer the behemoth, the fearful resurrection of the state of nature, but rather communality and commonality. Protected not only by sovereign power but more importantly supported by a naturally imagined sense of belonging, a communal identity, the national citizen could now enjoy the luxury of attending to their inner life; the domestic sphere of the private-individual, the psychological, the non-political.

Albeit formulated within an orthodox Marxist framework, one could argue that it is precisely this moment Georg Lukacs’s critique identifies as the time of modernism, an argument that would provide a new context for his aggressive and somewhat dogmatic promotion of traditional realism at the expense of other literary styles. As Astradur Eysteinsson has argued, Lukács essentially divides modern literature into a

“modernist/realist binary system” (186), two categories—one politically relevant, and one largely irrelevant in a political sense.37 The hyperbolic rhetoric apart, Lukács identifies an important aspect of the development of modern literature, namely the gradual depoliticization of the literary, the privatization, interiorization, and individualization of literary discourse, which generally occurs around the same time as the idea of the imagined community becomes a concrete reality.

In his 1955 essay “The Ideology of Modernism,” Lukács argues that the problem with modernist writers is their “exaggerated concern with formal criteria, with questions of style and literary technique” (17). Lukacs’s point here is that the more private, individual, and subjective literature becomes, the more it emphasizes style; the more the text deviates from a common representational idea of a normative-objective world, the more idiosyncratic-stylistic it becomes. In Lukacs’s view, modernist literature insists on imagining the world from the individualistic perspective—not, as in realism, the individual-particular imagination of a collective-universal vision of a normative reality. Modernists, Lukács writes, “are almost without exception supporters of extreme subjectivism, the static nature of reality, and the senselessness of its surface phenomena, are absolute truths requiring no proof. Naturally, phenomena in the outer world, governed by their own immanent laws, exist outside human consciousness” (“Franz Kafka” 72). The concept of a collective reality exists naturally outside the human mind precisely because it is no longer contested politically; it is at this stage that “the negation of outward reality” (“Ideology” 25) becomes possible because it already exists as an ontologically undisputed fact.38 It is the secure, stable borders of the nation-territory that allows the individual to dream of all the potential possibilities of the private-intimate life and, conversely, the imagined community that makes these borders stable.

Potentiality, Lukács argues (following Hegel), is in an abstract or subjective sense “richer than actual life. Innumerable possibilities for man’s development are imaginable, only a small percentage of which will be realized. Modern subjectivism, taking these imagined possibilities for actual complexity of life, oscillates between melancholy and fascination” (“Ideology” 22). To Hegel, potentiality comes in two forms: abstract and concrete (or real); the problem for the subjective mind is that there is no way to distinguish between concrete-real and abstract-imaginary potentialities.39 The consequence is a “bad infinity of purely abstract potentialities” (24), which deprives “literature of a sense of perspective" (33), the principle that “enables the artist to choose between the important and the superficial, the crucial and the episodic” (ibid.). Losing this ‘selection principle’, modernist form is unable to portray development as history, as a dynamic reality; the “static apprehension of reality,” Lukács observes, “is no passing fashion; it is rooted in the ideology of modernism” (35). When everyone imagines the world from his or her own private perspective—that is, not imagining the world as it might be imagined by a collective—“the artist’s world disintegrates into a multiplicity of partial worlds” (39); this is, of course, not the splintered historico-political discourse threatening to bring everything down to the reality of war, but rather the individual withdrawing into a private realm precisely because this private realm has become possible due to the consolidation and stabilization of the imagined community. It is around this time, Jameson argues, that domestic life becomes more and more incomprehensible and incoherent, since a significant part of what supports material forms of existence flows from nameless, anonymous sources, the origins of which are located far beyond the imperial center:

colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system as a whole is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country, in colonies over the water whose own life experience and life world-very different from that of the imperial power-remain unknown and unimaginable for the subjects of the imperial power, whatever social class they may belong to. (“Modernism” 50-51)

To Jameson, this is “the problem and the dilemma, the formal contradiction, that modernism seeks to solve” (51). It is in this context that Walter Benjamin’s shock experience becomes a source of subversion, disrupting and defamiliarizing a reality that has come to appear self-evident, natural, and given.40 Jameson’s late nineteenth-century period here coincides with Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘official nationalism’, “the merger of nation and dynastic empire,” which “developed after, and in reaction to, the popular national movements proliferating in Europe since the 1820s” (Imagined 86).41

Lukâcs’s idea of realism, on the contrary, essentially situates itself in opposition to this gloomy description of modernism: it involves an individual perspective articulating a vision of the collective imagination, a shared reality, a common ground, an ‘objective world’—and hence a normative perspective that transcends bad infinity, solipsism, extreme subjectivism, and abstract potentiality, one that may articulate a dynamic-progressive vision of history. The ‘typical’, a crucial category in Lukacs’s realist theory, involves the idea that the individual imagines the world as if it were imagined by a collective. “In realist literature,” Lukács writes, “each descriptive detail is both individual and typical" (“Ideology” 43), whereas the idiosyncrasy and inventiveness of modernist style eliminate the typical; “By destroying the coherence of the world, they reduce detail to the level of mere particularity” (43). To Lukács, realism is thoroughly grounded in the historical and hence the extra-diegetic. It captures the typical—i.e., the individual as a type—while plot coincidences and randomness are elevated to something that may be interpreted as a force of necessity. To Lukács, the monotony we find in modernist works is an expression of abandoning this attempt to collectively reflect the world. When Lukács raises the prospect of a re-emergence of realism within a socialist context, he is trying to revive an older, politicized notion of realism as a revolutionary counterforce, but in fact, comes close to endorsing a Zhdanovist doctrinal notion of literature. My argument is that realism only genuinely becomes a significant political form once it re-emerges within postcolonial contexts; it is in these latter contexts that political circumstances create the possibility for the prospect of a re-emergence of a realist form that engages with the idea of a normative, collective reality—i.e., an engagement with the specifically political. Lukacs’s critique of the rise of modernism (and more broadly anti-realism) is a response to the failure of the 1848 revolutions, a moment which in Lukacs’s view leads to a depoliticization of the cultural realm (or perhaps rather an escape into the cultural, away from the political). It is against this background I am arguing that postcolonial studies’ preference for anti-realist literary works can similarly be viewed as a depoliticizing response to the political failures of many postcolonial historical sites during the 1960s and 1970s.

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