Browsing Tag: modernism


    Book: The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

    May 26, 2021
    (c) 1955; pp. 933; publisher: The New York Review of Books

    “My dear fellow, the priest is the guardian of mysteries. The artist is driven to expose them.”

    At 70 shy of 1,000 pages, this difficult 1953 novel is the most exhaustive tale of fakery, art, and religion one could hope for. Through the activities of forger Wyatt Gwyon, and his shadowy agent Recktall Brown, we discover how straightforward it could be to: adopt an old Dutch Master; create a composite scene from earlier works found in books; then to paint this new work; chemically age it; and identify a likely attic in which it may be turned up and then sold for big money.

    Forged banknotes and passports also find their way onto these pages. The scenes in which these are created and exhibited smoulder with Faustian hellfire. And a cast of more of less bohemian characters drift in and out of rooms, foreign lands and extended parties as they discuss matters both existential and low brow, in lively pages of dialogue which can run on for pages at a time. Hanging over all the events the threat of damnation; Wyatt is the son of a church minister and atmosphere of 1950s Spain, the piety and the poverty, together with the godless bars downtown Manhattan are just two of the precisely evoked milieu.

    Because the most remarkable thing about this epic novel is the precision with which Gaddis writes. His prose is like razor wire: angular, cutting, at times dangerous – given the satirical approach to Christianity and the art world. The American author has an unsentimental view of his characters, moving them in and out of scenes like sacrificial chess pieces; I find no one to root for, but plenty to laugh about given Gaddis’s comic regard for human life.

    Yet all of the above is an aside. The elephantine tome in the room is the complexity of this book, described by Jonathan Franzen, saga merchant for the present age, as the most difficult he has every voluntarily read. I admit I was lost for passages at a time and points of narrative were lost on me. But the reading experience was consistently rewarding; the book is full of set pieces, witty observations, and evocative allusion, enjoyment of which allayed my anxieties about plot.

    Regulars to this blog may wonder at the inclusion of this book review in the context of the PhD I’m working on. Well, since imitation is central to my thesis, I thought I might find an epigraph or two. There was the comment at the top of this post, from dealer-character Basil Valentine on p.257, which I’m sharing by way of a taster. If you like bon mots, you will find much to like here.


    Review: Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)

    June 13, 2018

    Although Latour’s contentious book is a mere 145 pages long (in fact he calls it an essay), the notion that, after one reading, this fledgling researcher is qualified to review this for you feels like hubris. However, We Have Never Been Modern reads like a manifesto and, as such, the pages call for a response.

    Latour is known as a thinker within the canny niche known as science studies. It is a branch of enquiry which shares with anthropology an interest in human cultures and examines networks in order to grasp the impact, and limitations, of science. Put this way, science studies appears to be a somewhat marginal endeavour. But the arguments set out in this title, put the specialised discipline centre stage as Latour gets to grips with the differences between premodern societies and the modernism in which technology seems to have wrenched us away from nature. (That’s an oversimplification to be sure).

    Science studies appears to offer a way out of some dead ends which have arisen from modernist thinking and which lead to the playful branch of nihilism we call postmodernism. But the disenchantment of the world appears to be greatly exaggerated. In our attempts to be modern, we are wallowing in a certain self pity, a certain self-dramatisation. Says Latour:

    “Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and formica? Haven’t we felt sorry enough for the the consumer who leaves the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?! How do we love to wear the hairshirt of the absurd, and what even greater pleasure we take in postmodern nonsense.” Latour (1991) p.115

    Unsurprisingly this is one of the easiest passages in a thesis which, at times, is so topographical that only a scientistic diagram will do. Indeed Latour uses diagrams to map the relations between nature and society, different types of relativism, principles of asymmetry between nature and society, the origins of the divide between nature and society, and so on. If these visuals and the dogged investigative text have a single message, it might be this: the perceived divide between the West and the rest of the world comes down to a rupture brought about by revolutions in science. These changes in the Western self image, date back to Hobbes and Boyle and their experiments with the air pump in the 1660s. There is a scientistic culture originating with these findings, which now sets us apart from the world’s various ‘primitive’ or premodern peoples. So the circumstances around the creation of scientific revolutions are clearly a field which bears examination. This exploration of context is the vital activity of science studies.

    Latour’s book was written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an event which bookends the whole essay and, according to the author, it reflects, “the conjoined failure of socialism and naturalism”(ibid, p.145), as if neither society nor nature can win out in the false opposition between these two terms. In this context, by way of conclusion he writes:

    “If we do not change the common dwelling, we shall not absorb in it the other cultures that we can no longer dominate, and we shall be forever incapable of accommodating in it the environment we can no longer control.” (ibid, p.145)

    This call for inclusivity and environmentalism has never been more relevant. But it strikes the reader that since 1989 there have been two more ruptures in the march of history: 9/11 and digital tech. It will be interesting to see if Latour’s later works get to grips with a social landscape that could not be guessed at when pundits, like Francis Fukuyama, were predicting the end of history in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latour, it should be noted clearly doesn’t buy this. In fact this book attacks the notion of a “coherent temporal flow” (ibid, p141).

    Whatever your interests, this book is compelling and one of Latour’s strengths is to give his writings personal relevance. This is apparent from the opening line here: “On page 4 of my daily newspaper, I learn…” (ibid, p1). But since my own research interest is the work of paleolithic man, it opens vistas which previously one might not have previously dared consider. If we have never been modern, perhaps we have never been prehistoric. His is an essay, and a call to arms, that will bear re-reading and I hope to find new applications for it in the field of archaeology; a discipline growing ever more technologically advanced around the study of prehistoric caves.

    I’m keen to hear from anyone else who’s read Latour. If I’ve got anything wrong, do point it out. And if you have any observations or additional points of interest, the comments section is always open!