108: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman cautions against jumping on the PoMo bandwagon to make sense of the world.  Against Postmodernism, which he sees as a dead-end way of interpreting the world that only leads to the I, death, and fragmented searches for authenticity in depthless space, he argues that Modernism, and the larger Enlightenment project of which it is a part, have room for human agency, collectivity, and social change.  Further, instead of being the way out of global capitalism, Postmodernism is just a phase in the modernist dialectic, one of those moments when Marxism and modernism collide.

Berman accepts that Modernism in the mid-20th century became the top-down, monolithic grand narrative that Postmodern theorists reject, but for his definition of Modernism he points instead to the 19th century, when Modernism was a way of making sense of a chaotic new “modern” world and asserting human agency in the face of totalizing industrial development.  Modernism is a dialectic between top-down and bottom-up culture, and the Enlightenment project of Progress proceeds not in a


smooth grand narrative but through the public resistance, systematic rebellion, protests and other struggles by which “modern men and women assert… their right to control their future” and their right to “make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”  Within this dialectic, if modernization involves social fragmentation and detachment from place, Modernism is about reattaching, creating roots, and connecting to the past through history and memory and to each other through shared experiences.  If this interest in place and developing roots sounds like a Postmodern project, that’s because Postmodernism is a phase of Modernism; Modernism, Postmodernism, anti-modernism are all interrelated in the same project.

Two things that Berman finds essential in Modernism that he doesn’t see in PoMo are time, which he associates with progress, and dialectic, which is the process by which structure and agency struggle to move history forward.  He also hones in on modernity as contradiction: between place and placelessness, subject and object, old and new modernities, global corporations and individual workers.  Mired in a search for authenticity among the depthless surfaces of Postmodernism, we are likely to become so obsessed with our navels that we don’t even realize we’re being increasingly controlled and oppressed.  Like Marx, Berman argues that we need to make ourselves both subjects and objects of history; to peel back the surface and see how the system really works, and then to work together to make sure modernization doesn’t eclipse human agency altogether.

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