Marshall Berman: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

BermanIn many of the posts so far there has tended to be an implicit if not explicit critique of postmodernism. This does not come from blind denial of postmodernism as a valuable way to view theory, if not the world, but rather from impatience with the way in which modernism is portrayed in many early postmodern treatises. Open critiques of modernism have tended to fall away in recent years as postmodern views and methods become more and more commonplace. Despite this, the foundations of many postmodern approaches lie in a flawed critique of modernism and as such it handicaps the value of what postmodernism has to offer (see my entry on ‘Under The Shadow of Postmodernism’ for an example). My critique of postmodernism should not be taken for an uncritical defence of modernism – rather, I see much of what is valuable in postmodernism to be already present in modernist thinking. Marshall Berman’s book ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ is one of those texts that cemented my understanding of a much less monolithic, objective and self-referential modernism. Berman’s writing on early modernist writers reveals an open, vibrant, lively and uncertain modernism that is very much focused on human concerns, feelings and emotions. There are other key texts that have given me a view of a much more flexible and ambiguous modernism – David Harvey’s ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’ for example. Berman’s book is fascinating in that it focuses a great deal on literature, yet it is very much literature that focuses on the city and how people came to grips with an emerging modern metropolis. Its key figures are Goethe’s Faust, Marx, Baudelaire, various writers in St. Petersburg, and ends with Robert Moses and modernism in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. In the process I became a fan of Gogol and Dostoevsky. It is a rare thing for a writer to use references in such a way that not only do you pick up and follow the point being made through them but also develop an appetite to devour their work directly. This is due to Berman’s enthusiasm for the characters he writes about. Berman is a self-declared and open Marxist (Marxist Humanist, according to him) which might suggest a good deal of theory and political/economic critique. Yet, even the chapter on Marx is all about dazzling prose, metaphor and a dynamic vision of modernism, which far from dismissing capitalist or bourgeois ingenuity, celebrates it more than its proponents. When Berman writes about Marx we understand him as a person, coming to grips with something complex, admiring its strengths while being insightful enough to see its dangers. Berman verges on making reading Marx fun! It is, perhaps, a view taken by Berman and few others, but it’s invigorating. Berman in turn takes our contemporary condition in a similar way – describing the difficult, violent and frightening reality of our current world order, while seeing within it the possibilities for coping, creating and finding meaning within it all. Berman followed up ‘All That Is Solid’ with ‘Adventures in Marxism’ and despite the more overt interest in Marx is actually a more personal book. We get a sense of Berman the teacher, son, father and husband and see how he himself has navigated through his own life as an unrepentant modernist.

While Berman teaches us a lot about the potential of the modernist mindset – and I have drawn much from him – I could never attain the optimistic outlook he has. The fact that he can remain optimistic, however, is sometimes enough. If he can manage it, despite his much deeper understanding of how difficult and destructive our situation is, then somehow I can trust in it, even if I can’t quite see it yet.

I’ve been cryptic about exactly what it is that Berman says in his books – but this isn’t a book review and this is one of those books where it’s best to retreat to the cliché – ‘You have to read it for yourself’. What I can say is that these early characters that Berman describes, along with their ideas, demonstrate that the problems of identity, belonging, plurality and fitting into a world that is radically changing at such a pace that it never stands still enough for you to figure it out are not new problems but now more than a century old. The relationship between objectivity and subjectivity is not one of opposition (modernism was objective and postmodernism is subjective) but of evolving interrelation. Rather than insisting on seeing postmodernism as some erasure of modernism it is more productive to understand the close parallels between the two. In this way we can learn from the past and its experiments (failures and successes alike) and see where we stand as part of history. This provides us with the capacity to be critical about what we do – it is the absence of this critical self-reflection, by overemphasizing the subjective, the contingent and the present, that most disturbs me about postmodern practices. Believing that we share nothing with our early modernist explorers means we have nothing to compare ourselves to, resulting in ahistorical, formalist and self-referential results – the very characteristics that were used to damn modernist thinking in the first place.

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