Main Legacies of Modernism: Art and Politics in Northern Europe, 1890-1950

Legacies of Modernism: Art and Politics in Northern Europe, 1890-1950

, ,
Between 1890 and 1950 modernist art and culture set out to challenge century-old notions of the individual and the community, culture and politics, morality and freedom, placing into question the very foundations of Western civilization. The essays in this volume present a novel assessment of various manifestations of modernism in Germany and Scandinavia by posing the question of its critical and political impact beyond traditional polarities such as right vs. left, illiberalism vs. Enlightenment, apolitical vs. engaged. In drawing on a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, including literary studies, art history, film and visual studies, urban studies, musicology, political theory, and the history of science and technology, the essays in this volume reexamine modernism's bold inquiry into areas such as the relation of art to technology and mass politics, the limits of liberal democracy, the reconceptualization of urban spaces, and the realignment of traditional art forms following the rise of new media such as film. The volume's contributors share a belief in the timeliness of modernism's critical impulse for a contemporary age confronted with ethical and political dilemmas that the modernists first articulated and to which they attempted to respond.  
Year: 2007
Edition: First Edition
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Language: english
Pages: 268 / 269
ISBN 10: 1403973237
ISBN 13: 9781403973238
Series: Studies in European Culture and History
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Legacies of Modernism

Studies in European Culture and History
edited by
Eric D. Weitz and Jack Zipes
University of Minnesota
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, the very meaning of Europe
has been opened up and is in the process of being redefined. European states and societies are
wrestling with the expansion of NATO and the European Union and with new streams of
immigration, while a renewed and reinvigorated cultural engagement has emerged between the
East and West. But the fast-paced transformations of the last fifteen years also have deeper
historical roots. The reconfiguring of contemporary Europe is entwined with the cataclysmic
events of the twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust, and with the processes of
modernity that, since the eighteenth century, have shaped Europe and its engagement with the
rest of the world.
Studies in European Culture and History is dedicated to publishing books that explore major
issues in Europe’s past and present from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives. The works
in the series are interdisciplinary; they focus on culture and society and deal with significant
developments in Western and Eastern Europe from the eighteenth century to the present
within a social historical context. With its broad span of topics, geography, and chronology, the
series aims to publish the most interesting and innovative work on modern Europe.
Published by Palgrave Macmillan:
Fascism and Neofascism: Critical Writings on the Radical Right in Europe
by Eric Weitz
Fictive Theories: Towards a Deconstructive and Utopian Political Imagination
by Susan McManus
German-Jewish Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust: Grete Weil, Ruth Klüger, and the Politics
of Address
by Pascale Bos
Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration
by Leslie Adelson
Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11
by Gene Ray
Transformations of the New Germany
edited by Ruth Starkman
Caught by Politics: Hitler Exiles and American Visual Culture
edited by Sabine Eckmann and Lutz Koepnick
Legacies of Modernism: Art and Politics in Northern Europe, 1890–1950
edited by Patrizia C. McBride, Richard W. McCormick, and Monika Zagar

Legacies of Modernism
Art and Politics in
N or t h e r n Europ e , 1 8 9 0 – 1 950

Edited By
Patrizia C. McBride,
Richard W. McCormick, and
Monika Jagar

LEGACIES OF MODERNISM

© Patrizia C. McBride, Richard W. McCormick, and Monika Aagar, 2007.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any
manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief
quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
First published in 2007 by
PALGRAVE MACMILLAN™
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010 and
Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England RG21 6XS
Companies and representatives throughout the world.
PALGRAVE MACMILLAN is the global academic imprint of the Palgrave
Macmillan division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC and of Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Macmillan® is a registered trademark in the United States, United Kingdom
and other countries. Palgrave is a registered trademark in the European
Union and other countries.
ISBN-13: 978–1–4039–7323–8
ISBN-10: 1–4039–7323–7
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Legacies of modernism : art and politics in northern Europe,
1890–1950 / edited by Patrizia C. McBride, Richard W. McCormick
and Monika Aagar.
p. cm. —(Studies in European culture and history)
Based on papers presented at a conference held Spring 2002,
University of Minnesota.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Contents: High, low, and other : the politics of music —
Modernism/ Antimodernism, race and eugenics in Scandinavia —
Science, technology, and German modernism — Architecture and
urban planning in Weimar modernity — The politics of visual culture :
Weimar, exile, and postwar — The politics of visual culture in the
Third Reich — Modernist politics now : critiques of liberalism.
ISBN 1–4039–7323–7 (alk. paper)
1. Arts—Political aspects—Europe, Northern—History—19th
century—Congresses. 2. Arts—Political aspects—Europe,
Northern—History—20th century—Congresses. 3. Modernism
(Aesthetics)—Europe, Northern—Congress. I. McBride, Patrizia C.
II. McCormick, Richard W., 1951– III. Aagar, Monika.
NX180.P64L44 2007
700.94’09034—dc22

2006051384

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Design by Newgen Imaging Systems (P) Ltd., Chennai, India.
First edition: February 2007
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America.

Con t e n t s

List of Figures

ix

Acknowledgments

xi

Notes on the Contributors
Introduction: The Future’s Past—Modernism, Critique,
and the Political
Patrizia C. McBride

xiii

1

Section I High, Low, and Other:
The Politics of Music
Hans Pfitzner and the Anxiety of Nostalgic Modernism
Marc A. Weiner

17

Mahler, Rembrandt, and the Dark Side of German Culture
Carl Niekerk

29

Section II Modernism/Antimodernism, Race
and Eugenics in Scandinavia
The Resistance to Modernism in Karl Gjellerup’s
Germanernes Lærling (1882)
Paul Houe

43

Knut Hamsun’s “White Negro” from Ringen sluttet (1936)—
Or the Politics of Race
Monika Jagar

55

Eugenic Sterilization and the Role of Science—
The Scandinavian Case
Nils Roll-Hansen

67

vi / contents

Section III Science, Technology, and
German Modernism
Reactionary Engineers? Technocracy and the Kulturfaktor
Technik in Weimar Germany
Andreas Michel

81

Science, Art, and the Question of the Visible: Rudolf Virchow,
Hannah Höch, and “Immediate Visual Perception”
Thomas O. Haakenson

93

Section IV

Architecture and Urban Planning
in Weimar Modernity

Imagining the New Berlin: Modernism, Mass Utopia,
and the Architectural Avant-Garde
Sabine Hake

107

Rebuilding Babel: Urban Regeneration in the Modern/
Postmodern Age
Janet Ward

119

Section V

The Politics of Visual Culture: Weimar,
Exile, and Postwar

Politicizing Painting: The Case of New Objectivity
Maria Makela

133

Modernism from Weimar to Hollywood: Expressionism/
New Objectivity/Noir?
Richard W. McCormick

149

Clement Greenberg and the Postwar Modernist Canon:
Minimizing the Role of Germany and Northern Europe
Matthew Rohn

163

Section VI The Politics of Visual Culture
in the Third Reich
Framing Sight: Modernism and Nazi Visual Culture
Lutz Koepnick

177

A Woman beside Herself: Art and Its Other in Nazi Movies
Linda Schulte-Sasse

189

contents / vii

Section VII Modernist Politics Now:
Critiques of Liberalism
The Stakes of the Political According to Carl Schmitt
Chantal Mouffe

203

Sovereignty and Its Discontents
William Rasch

213

Works Cited

225

Index

243

This page intentionally left blank

List of Figures

4.1

Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer, “Berlin Development
Project, Friedrichstadt District: Office and
Commercial Buildings, Bird’s Eye Perspective View”
5.1 “Walter (Fred MacMurray) Shoots Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyk)”
5.2 “Struggling for the Gun, Lulu (Louise Brooks) Shoots Schoen
(Fritz Kortner)”

108
158
159

This page intentionally left blank

Acknowledgments

This volume is based on papers presented at a conference organized in
Spring 2002 by the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at
the University of Minnesota, titled “After the Decline of the ‘Master
Narrative’: Rethinking Modernism. Art and Politics in Germany and
Scandinavia, 1890–1950.” Generous funding for the conference was provided by the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch; the Center
for German and European Studies; the Center for Scandinavian Studies;
the CLA Scholarly Events Fund; the Humanities Institute; the European
Studies Consortium; the Norwegian Ministry of Culture; and the Max
Kade Foundation. We also want to thank the Ph.D. candidates at
Minnesota who worked as research assistants for us: we thank Nicole
Grewling for her work on the index and Brechtje Beuker for her research
assistance, and we give special thanks to Alison Guenther-Pal, who first lent
her invaluable organizational skills to the conference in 2002 and then went
on to do such fine work for us as an editorial assistant for this volume. For
the cover photo, Meister in Wachs (Masters in Wax, 1928/29) by Umbo
(Otto Umbehr), we thank Phyllis Umbehr of the Gallery Kicken, Berlin, as
well as Anna Kröger and Maria Makela. For assistance with the other illustrations we thank the Art Institute of Chicago, Sabine Hake, Linda SchulteSasse, and (once again) Alison Guenther-Pal. We also thank Maria Makela
and Tom Haakenson for their valiant efforts on behalf of illustrations we
were not able to use.

This page intentionally left blank

Notes on the Contributors

Thomas O. Haakenson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of
Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of
Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is the recipient of fellowships from the U.S.
Fulbright Program and the Social Science Research Council. He is is working on his dissertation on visual culture in the early-twentieth-century
Berlin.
Sabine Hake is the Texas Chair of German Literature and Culture in the
Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She
is the author of German National Cinema (2002, published in German in
2004 as Film in Deutschland: Geschichte und Geschichten ab 1895), Popular
Cinema of the Third Reich (2001), The Cinema’s Third Machine: German
Writings on Film 1907–1933 (1993), Passions and Deceptions: The Early
Films of Ernst Lubitsch (1992), as well as of numerous articles on German
film and Weimar culture. Her current book project deals with urban architecture and mass utopia in Weimar Berlin.
Poul Houe is Professor of Scandinavian languages and literature at the
University of Minnesota. He has written widely on the nineteenth- and
twentieth- century Scandinavian and European literature, including such
authors as Sören Kierkegaard, Georg Brandes, Henrik Ibsen, and August
Strindberg; his next book, a collection of essays on Hans Christian
Andersen, will appear in Danish this fall. A regular contributor of critiques
on American and Scandinavian culture to Scandinavian newspapers and
magazines, he has lectured at numerous conferences and universities in
North America and Europe.
Lutz Koepnick is Professor of German, Film and Media Studies at
Washington University in St. Louis. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford
University in 1994. He is the author of The Dark Mirror: German Cinema
between Hitler and Hollywood (University of California Press, 2002); Walter
Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power (The University of Nebraska
Press, 1999), for which he received the MLA’s Scaglione Prize for Studies
in Germanic Languages and Literatures in 2000; and of Nothungs

xiv / notes on the contributors

Modernität: Wagners Ring und die Poesie der Politik im neunzehnten
Jahrhundert (Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1994). His current book project is entitled, Framing Attention: Windows on Modern German Culture. He is also the
coeditor of Sound Matters: Essays on the Acoustics of German Culture
(Berghahn Books, 2004), of Caught by Politics: Hitler Exiles and American
Visual Culture (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillian) and of Between the Local
and the Global: Re-Visiting the Sites of Postwar German Cinema (forthcoming, University of Michigan Press).
Maria Makela teaches Art History in the Department of Visual Studies at
California College of the Arts. She has written articles and books widely on
nineteenth- and twentieth- century German culture, and is the author of
The Munich Secession. Art and Artists in Turn-of-the-Century Munich and
coauthor of The Photomontages of Hannah Höch. She is currently coediting
an anthology on Max Beckmann and researching a book on rayon.
Patrizia C. McBride is Associate Professor of German at the University of
Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her fields of interest include the relationship
between literature, philosophy, and political theory, theories of modernity,
literary modernism, and Austrian literature and culture. She is the author of
The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity
(Northwestern University Press, 2006) and of articles on J.M.R. Lenz,
Adolf Loos, Jörg Haider, Hermann Broch, and Kurt Schwitters.
Richard W. McCormick is Professor of German at the University of
Minnesota, where his research and teaching are focused primarily on
German cinema. He is the author of Politics of the Self: Feminism and the
Postmodern in West German Literature and Film (Princeton University Press,
1991) and Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and
“New Objectivity” (Palgrave, 2001); he coedited the anthologies Gender and
German Cinema: Feminist Interventions (Berg, 1993) and German Essays on
Film (Continuum, 2004).
Andreas Michel is Associate Professor of German and European Studies at
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. His research focus is on Modern
European Intellectual History. His publications include essays on aesthetic
modernism, in particular on Carl Einstein, postmodernism, and the philosophy of technology.
Chantal Mouffe is Professor of Political Theory at the Centre for the Study of
Democracy at the University of Westminster in London. She has taught and
researched in many universities in Europe, North America, and South
America and is a member of the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris.
She is the editor of Gramsci and Marxist Theory (Routledge and Kegan Paul,
1979), Dimensions of Radical Democracy. Pluralism, Citizenship, Community

notes on the contributors / xv

(Verso, 1992) Deconstruction and Pragmatism (Routledge, 1996) and The
Challenge of Carl Schmitt (Verso, 1999); the coauthor, with Ernesto Laclau,
of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics
(Verso, 1985) and the author of The Return of the Political (Verso, 1993), The
Democratic Paradox (Verso, 2000), and On the Political (Routledge, 2005).
Carl Niekerk is Associate Professor of German at the University of Illinois,
Urbana-Champaign. He is a specialist in modern German literature and
culture, and is currently working on a book-length manuscript titled
“Reading Mahler: About the Literature, Philosophy, and Paintings in
Mahler’s Music.”
William Rasch is Professor and Chair of the Department of Germanic
Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of Niklas Luhmann’s
Modernity: The Paradoxes of Differentiation and Sovereignty and Its
Discontents: On the Primacy of Conflict and the Structure of the Political
(translated into German as Konflikt als Beruf: Die Grenzen des Politischen).
He has edited a collection of essays by Luhmann called Theories of
Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity and is coeditor (with
Wilfried Wilms) of a volume of critical essays called Bombs Away:
Representing the Air War over Europe and Japan.
Matthew Rohn is Associate Professor of Art History at St. Olaf College,
Northfield, Minnesota. Author of Visual Dynamics in Jackson Pollock’s
Abstractions and contributing author to the The Prints of Frank Stella, a
Catalogue Raisonné 1967–1982, Rohn has written a variety of articles on
modern art, the history of modern art criticism and the intellectual history
of American modern culture.
Nils Roll-Hansen is Professor of History and the Philosophy of Science in
the Department of Philosophy, the History of Ideas and Art, and Classical
Languages at the University of Oslo. His fields of interest include history
and the philosophy of biology. He has published works on the history of
classical genetics, eugenics, plant breeding, and environmental science, as
well as on the interaction of science and politics and on reductionism in
biology. He is a co-editor with Gunnar Broberg of Eugenics and the Modern
State (1997), and the author of The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science
(2005).
Linda Schulte-Sasse is Professor of German Studies at Macalester College.
Her research interests include cinema of the Third Reich, American political discourses, and horror cinema. She is author of Entertaining the Third
Reich: Illusions of Nazi Cinema (Duke University Press, 1996), and is completing a monograph on Dario Argento.

xvi / notes on the contributors

Janet Ward is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nevada Las
Vegas. She researches and teaches urban studies, visual culture, European
modernity, memory studies, and Holocaust representation. Her book,
Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany, was published in
2001 with the University of California Press. Her current book project is
entitled Berlin Borders: Building the Post-Wall Metropolis.
Marc A. Weiner is Professor of Germanic Studies, Adjunct Professor of
Comparative Literature, Communication and Culture (Film Studies), and
Cultural Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. His interests include
nineteenth- and early-twentieth -century literary and cultural studies of
Europe; German and Austrian music; German intellectual history; the
Frankfurt School; histories of racial and sexual iconography; GermanJewish relations; Fin-de-Siècle Vienna; and the German film. Recent
Publications include: Antisemitische Fantasien: Die Musikdramen Richard
Wagners Trans. Henning Thies (Berlin, Henschel Verlag, 2000.) German
translation of Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln,
Nebraska: University of Nebraska P, 1997) (winner of the Eugen F. Kayden
national book award for best book in the humanities); “Weimar Film,
Hollywood Opera: German Cultural History and Modern American
Practice,” The Harold Jantz Memorial Lecture (Oberlin, Oberlin College P,
2001); “Why Does Hollywood Like Opera?” In between Opera and Cinema,
edited by Jeongwon Joe and Rose Theresa (New York: Garland, 2001),
75–91; “Über Wagner sprechen: Ideologie und Methodenstreit.” In Richard
Wagner im dritten Reich, edited by Jörn Rüsen and Saul Friedländer
(Munich, Beck, 2000), 339–59; “In Search of Politics and Music.” Music
and Letters 81, no.1 (February 2000): 65–72; “Opera and the Discourse of
Decadence: From Wagner to AIDS.” In Perennial Decay: The Aesthetics and
Politics of Decadence in the Modern Era, edited by Liz Constable, Dennis
Denhishoff, and Matthew Potolsky (Philadelphia, University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 119–41.
Monika Zagar is Associate Professor of Scandinavian at the University of
Minnesota, Twin Cities where she lectures on a variety of subjects within
the field of Scandinavian literature and culture. She has a Ph.D. in
Scandinavian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She has
published a number of articles on various authors as well as a book on Dag
Solstad: Ideological Clowns: Dag Solstad – From Modernism to Politics
(2002). She has served on the editorial board for the Encylopedia of
Contemporary Scandinavia; currently she is writing a book on Knut Hamsun.

Introduction: The Future’s
Past—Modernism, Critique,
and the Political
Patrizia C. McBride

The story of how modernism came under fire from postmodern aesthetic
practices in the 1960s and 1970s has often been told. At stake was the
possibility of redefining the critical and political potential of art beyond
categories that had governed aesthetic discourse for centuries. These
included the aesthetic concepts of autonomy, representation, temporality,
and narrativity, as well as epistemological categories such as a stable self and
self-transparent consciousness, linear time and teleological history, or universal morality and self-determining reason. The first wave of critics that
read the rise of new artistic and philosophical discourses in Europe and
North America as evidence of the end of modernity and the exhaustion of
modernism soon found itself faced with intractable conceptual and
methodological problems, however. Indeed, early endeavors to define
postmodernism in contradistinction to modernism foundered on the
conspicuous persistence of modernist concerns in postmodern art and
literature. As it soon became clear, the attempt to demarcate epochal
caesurae—postmodernism versus modernism, postmodernity versus
modernity—remained caught in modes of temporalization and categorization that reproduced the problem rather than offering a solution. Perhaps
the most glaring deficit of these early attempts was their failure to grasp the
most fruitful tendency within postmodern thought, namely, its paradoxical
sense of continuity and rupture with regard to the past; in particular, with
regard to its modernist past.1
In briefly revisiting this (hi)story, I offer a partial account of the ways in
which the postmodern debates fostered an expanded understanding of art’s
critical potential. What interests me most in this endeavor is the possibility
of translating the heightened sensitivity of postmodernism to historical
continuity and rupture into a springboard for redefining the critical

2 / patrizia c. mcbride

impetus of art in our day. My admittedly selective discussion of a specific set
of philosophical and aesthetic issues is not intended to provide a comprehensive account of the postmodern debates, but rather to stake out a
number of questions that suggest the continued relevance of the modernist
constellation for our day.
The critical impulse of modernism has been traditionally located in its
self-understanding as a critique of modernity. Modernity in this context is
broadly defined as a confluence of social and economic processes harnessed
by an ideology of progress, secularization, and emancipation, whose mature
formulation surfaced in the Enlightenment. According to this narrative,
modernity is haunted by an acute sense of crisis, which grows out of the
awareness that the modern period had conspicuously strayed from the goals
and values that secured its legitimation. It is this crisis that modernism
articulates. This account portrays modernism as the aesthetic and cultural
sensibility that castigated modernity for its failure to redeem its highest
promises, namely, emancipation, justice, and economic equality. This flattering conceptualization of a recurrent modernist self-stylization is complicated by several blind spots, however. According to Jean-François Lyotard,
modernism registered the epochal transformation in Western practices of
knowledge, which dispensed with the external legitimation of traditional
master-narratives—the life of the spirit as grasped by speculative reason or
the emancipation of a humanity endowed with inalienable rights. Yet it did
so in a nostalgic fashion, and this is what sets it apart from postmodernism.
In other words, according to Lyotard, the limitation for modernism lies in
the fact that its critique becomes mingled with a nostalgia for what is (about
to be) lost, a desire for what it is impelled to reject as impossible (79–81).
Other postmodernist critiques, informed by the perspectives of feminism,
queer theory, or postcolonial studies, have offered their own commentaries
on this nostalgia, noting how it often fed into the modernists’ own generalizing and conspicuously undiscriminating master-narratives. In claiming to
give voice to the plights of the “modern subject” threatened by the logic of
modernization, for instance, modernists often did little more than recount
the alienation of white, male, bourgeois subjectivity, unwittingly exposing
its troubling proclivity to mistake itself for the default, and thus universal
prototype of humanity.2
This is not the place to rehearse the long list of criticisms of which
modernism became a target and that, to be fair, often constituted a repudiation not of the modernist tradition per se, but rather of the domesticated
and highly selective version of high modernism that scholars in the United
States and Germany elevated to a safe cultural norm in order to buttress the
deeply conservative academic and cultural environment of the 1950s and
1960s. Suffice it to say that critics generally refrained from concluding that

the future’s past / 3

such blind spots irremediably tainted the critical impulse of modernism.
After all, this conclusion would have flown in the face of the series of
modernist returns within postmodern critical practices. For the more attentive observers the question rather became how to negotiate the historical
caesura symptomatically expressed in the postmodern debates. At stake was
the perceived need to (re)define the critical and political potential of art in
the years spanning the 1970s to the mid 1980s, when several countries in
Western Europe witnessed the failure of the student movement and its coda of
terrorism and disenchantment, which were accompanied by the conservative
retrenchments of the Reagan-Thatcher era.
As Andreas Huyssen perceptively put it in an important essay on postmodernism, “in the age of late capitalism, [the crisis of modernism] is a new
crisis of art’s relationship to society.”3 Huyssen’s aim in this essay was not so
much to defend modernism as to rescue postmodernism from the charge of
being apolitical or, worse yet, affirmative of a status quo defined by the
unholy alliance of political neoconservatism and multinational capitalism.
If postmodernism looked arbitrary or light-weight to some contemporary
critics, he maintained, this was because it was measured against criteria of
critical engagement schooled on the most austere version of high modernism and formulated at times of extreme crisis (totalitarianism as the
backdrop for Adorno’s high modernism and Lukács’ realism, the Cold War
for Clement Greenberg’s and the New Critics’ version of high modernism)
(Huyssen, Great Divide 197). These criteria were no longer adequate for
evaluating the critical potential of art in the1980s because the critical interventions of postmodernism unfolded in a field of ambivalent and multiply
coded meanings that could not be grasped by means of the dichotomizing
categories forged on the “classical accounts of modernism,” namely, “progress vs.
reaction, left vs. right, present vs. past, modernism vs. realism, abstraction vs.
representation, avant-garde vs. Kitsch” (Huyssen, Great Divide 217).
As Huyssen added in a later essay cowritten with David Bathrick, these neat
polarities were not at all inherent in the modernist tradition they sought to
describe, but rather represented highly selective categories deployed in the
postwar period to contain the heterogeneity of modernist practices and
thereby purge them of their ambivalence. The result was a sanitized,
politically tenable, and morally exemplary version of high modernism.
Huyssen’s achievement lies in having shown that the presumably
monolithic discourse of modernism in Germany and the United States was
a projection of conservative critics and of a specific historical constellation
in the immediate postwar period and in having highlighted the plurality of
genealogies that make up the modernist tradition. If the postmodern
debates marked the erosion of the categories traditionally deployed in
describing the critical interventions of modernism and postmodernism

4 / patrizia c. mcbride

alike, then the end of the Cold War and the ensuing radicalization of
fundamentalisms of various kinds dealt established discourses on the critical
role of the artist and the intellectual a further blow, for they produced a
weakening of the very categories that had sustained Cold War political
discourse: liberalism, democracy, rational consensus, equality, and human
rights. In analyzing these changes in unified Germany, Huyssen has noted
that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the process of unification marked “the
end of the unquestioned role in West German intellectual life of the leftliberal consensus” (Twilight Memories 45). At the same time, they helped to
test the limits of distinctions such as left and right, progressive and conservative, and democracy and illiberalism. In the immediate aftermath of
1989, many of the critical interventions of intellectuals and artists concerning Germany’s unification and its new role in the international arena
exposed the ideological parochialism and historical myopia of traditional
intellectual discourse, revealing the need for a “redefinition of the role of
intellectuals, writers, and artists in the new Germany” (Huyssen, Twilight
Memories 42).
This redefinition is underway, not only in Germany, but also throughout
Europe and North America. One may well argue that established aesthetic
concepts, cultural norms, and the very categories of classical political discourse have become more porous at the beginning of a new millennium
marked by the complex interplay of political regionalisms and economic
globalization. Given this situation, what can a rereading of modernism offer
us today and how should one approach this task? At issue is the need for an
analytical framework suited for articulating the perception of both
unsettling proximity and utter remoteness that modernism evokes as a circumscribed constellation of aesthetic and philosophical issues—the dispersion of subjectivity and the crisis of artistic expression, the differentiation of
life spheres and the relativization of structures of knowledge, the instability
of the real and the contingency of the ethical. These concerns are both intimately connected to contemporary debates, irrevocably cut off from our
present by a series of historical caesurae nested in the folds of interlocking
political, economic, social, and technological developments. It is precisely
this befuddling sense of modernism’s concomitant closeness and remoteness
that seems to defy all attempts at portraying its relation to our contemporary
perspective in terms of a linear sequence of discrete historical phenomena.
But if modernism appears both irreducibly past and tremendously present,
what is the analytical value of this observation and how is one to translate it
into productive categories of analysis?
Hal Foster has confronted this issue head-on in his investigation of the
relation between the historical avant-garde and the neo–avant-garde movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Writing ten years after Huyssen’s essay on

the future’s past / 5

postmodernism, Foster is also intent on (re)defining the critical potential of
art in a “post-age” that finds itself at a loss as it tries to discriminate between
genuine aesthetic innovation and effect-seeking “anything goes,” between
selfless artistic engagement and self-enamored stylization, between ironic
critique of art’s commodification and opportunistic exploitation of an overheated art market. Starting from Peter Bürger’s momentous conceptualization
of avant-garde art, Foster takes issue with the teleological notions of time and
historical unfolding that prompted Bürger to view the historical avant-garde
as the sole bearer of a critical and aesthetic project, which the neo–avant-garde
could only ape and betray. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, or deferred
action, provides Foster with a tool for productively complicating the linearity
of Bürger’s account. Drawing on Lacan’s reading of Freud, Foster likens
history to the structure of subjectivity as “a relay of anticipations and reconstructions of traumatic events” (Return 29). In this model, traumatic events
are not endowed with fixed meanings that unfold chronologically from the
point of occurrence. Rather, the structure of trauma is such that it requires
other, later events to serve as triggers for a resurfacing of the traumatic
event. It is this process of repeated resurfacing that plays out as trauma.
To the extent that trauma is constitutive for the structure of subjectivity,
this complex temporal interplay makes up the very fabric of the subject.
In Foster’s words, “one event is only registered through another that recodes
it; we come to be who we are only in deferred action (Nachträglichkeit)”
(Return 29).
The appeal of reading history in terms of traumatic subjectivity lies for
Foster in the possibility of overcoming “any simple schema of before and
after, cause and effect, origin and repetition” (Return 29). There is no sense
of an origin or inception of meaning; rather, meaning is assigned and reassigned in a complex exchange among different temporal triggers. What
emerges when one extends this temporal structure to the relations between
the historical and the neo avant-gardes is “a complex relation of anticipation
and reconstruction” (Foster, Return 13). This interplay allows Foster to
amend Bürger’s thesis about the presumably fraudulent practices of the
neo–avant-garde. Far from seeing the neo–avant-garde as opportunistically
mimicking its historical forerunner, this perspective portrays it as that
“which comprehends and enacts” the project of the historical avant-garde
(Foster, Return 20)—a comprehension and enaction that have nothing to
do with closure and completion, or with the better vision presumably
gained in hindsight. “The avant-garde returns from the future” (Foster,
Return 29): this oxymoron well captures the paradoxical temporality
entailed in the relation of mutual implication Foster is describing. For
the anticipation that the historical avant-garde represents is itself part of the
backward projection (or reconstruction) operated by the neo–avant-garde.

6 / patrizia c. mcbride

Thus Foster’s model makes it possible to grasp the relation between the two
“objects” in a temporally open-ended, nonhierarchical fashion, which takes
into account the critical investment of the observer whose observations
establish this very relation. If the aesthetic and critical practices at the onset
of the twentieth century and in the aftermath of World War II can
illuminate each other outside of any relation of cause and effect or origin
and derivation, it is because, in keeping with the analogy of trauma, they are
activated by analogous triggers.
I am interested in examining what it might mean to “reconstruct the
modernist past” from today’s vantage point, or, to paraphrase another of
Foster’s formulations, to what extent we can argue that “modernism returns
from the future.” The issue is whether there is something like a traumatic
constellation that might prompt us to appropriate the heterogeneous tradition of modernism as a productive symptom of our day in a self-aware act
of temporal inversion. I do not intend to offer yet another metanarrative,
the likes of which were often simultaneously longed for and undermined
within the modernist tradition, but I argue that what returns from “our
future” in the modernist constellation is an awareness about the insufficiencies of established ways of thinking the human, of conceptualizing individual
and collective experience, as well as an anxiety about the disastrous effects
that could ensue if the admittedly inadequate categories currently being
deployed were to be dismissed. This anxiety arises from confrontation with
a series of historical traumas, of events that defy the experiential and interpretive categories available to individuals and collectives: World War I and
the rise of totalitarianism for European modernism; the war in the Balkans,
the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the genocides perpetrated
in Africa in full view of a complacent international community for our
present. In pointing to a traumatic constellation in which both the
modernists and our present possibly share, my intention is not to draw
historical parallels between distinct sets of horrific events, much less learn
edifying lessons from the past. Rather I am concerned with acknowledging
that modernism first registered the utter bankruptcy of a discourse on the
human that had harnessed Western culture for centuries and that it openly
confronted the challenges, the risks, and the temptations entailed in moving
beyond this discourse. I believe that our time faces challenges not unlike
those that shaped the modernist constellation. These challenges are at the
heart of the temporal interplay of anticipation and reconstruction that
allows us to claim that modernism returns from the future. The issue
then becomes understanding the nature of this return and how it interacts
with our present.
Walter Benjamin’s essay “Experience and Poverty” represents a paradigmatic example for the modernist discourse to which I am referring and can

the future’s past / 7

help specify the significance of its return for the twenty-first century.
Written in 1933, the essay offers itself as a commentary on an epoch
ominously framed by two historical cataclysms in Germany, namely, the
carnage of World War I and the affirmation of National Socialism.
Benjamin starts by noting how, at the onset of the twentieth century,
technology and its applications in all realms of life so deeply transformed
individual and collective existence that a radical disconnect began separating everyday experience from customary ways of making sense of it. “We
have given up one portion of the human heritage after another”
(“Experience” 735), Benjamin remarks, for this heritage appears to be of
little use in dealing with the present; indeed, received modes of interpreting
existence seem utterly obsolete. The sentiment voiced by Benjamin can easily
be fitted into a discourse concerning the erosion of Western cultural and
metaphysical signposts—the self, the community of men, reason, history,
and freedom—that reaches back to Nietzsche. Yet Benjamin’s text fails to
reinforce the nostalgia for lost points of reference that marks, for instance,
the discourse of cultural pessimism of contemporaries like Thomas Mann,
Rainer Maria Rilke, or Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The impossibility of
drawing on inherited interpretive categories for understanding experience
has resulted in an utter “poverty of experience,” Benjamin concedes, but
this is not as negative a condition as the formulation seems to suggest. In
fact, this experiential paucity inspired contemporaries such as Adolf Loos,
Paul Klee, Paul Scheerbart, and Cubist painters to reject “the traditional,
solemn, noble image of man festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of
the past” and to embrace a radical new vision freed from good old
humanist crutches such as “humanlikeness” (Benjamin, “Experience” 733).
The artificial language in which these artists communicate enables them to
imagine and shape a future that is not held hostage by inherited experiential
modes.
Key to the efforts of the artists Benjamin celebrates is a “new, positive
concept of barbarism,” which they have embraced. The barbarian is an individual who lacks the interpretive categories that would allow him to turn his
bare existence into meaningful experience. This poverty of experience forces
him “to start from scratch [. . .], to begin with a little and build up further,
looking neither left nor right” (Benjamin, “Experience” 732). This enterprise appears at once exhilarating and frightening, for also inscribed in the
term “barbarian” is an awareness of the violence and disruption that could
be unleashed by such an undertaking. For the barbarian stands outside civilization as its inassimilable other. His relation to civilization is marked by
an antagonism lined with potential violence. It is nonetheless apparent that
for Benjamin the poverty of experience that characterizes his age leaves no
choice but to explore barbarism. There is no point in instilling new life into

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the moribund ideas of experience and humanity that have historically
underpinned the civilization of the West, for those ideas have been discredited by the disruption of World War I. Unfolding further the metaphor of
the barbarian, one can argue that Benjamin’s text registers the degree to
which Western civilization had already become porous to the barbarian
“outside” against which it had defined itself for centuries—the contemporary violence of the National Socialist regime constituting an ominous seal
to this process. Within this frame, Benjamin’s positive concept of barbarism
points to the need for boldly investigating the “outside” to current notions
of humanity—an outside that had already powerfully infiltrated modern
life—in order to imagine more adequate modes of individual and collective
experience.
One can argue that in the contemporary Western world the sense of
rupture described by Benjamin is more acute than ever. If the end of the
Cold War prompted early enthusiasts to prophesy the imminent triumph of
the Western model of liberal democracy and of its underlying vision of
enlightened and compassionate humanity,4 one can claim that the discrepancy between this hopeful vision and the reality of resurgent religious, ethnic, and national fundamentalisms on the old continent and elsewhere has
become ever more conspicuous at the dawn of the twenty-first century. For
many, this awareness is compounded by the belief that the post–Cold War
world of economic globalization and information revolution is being
threatened by a presumably obstreperous and insufficiently enlightened
Islam. I would like to suggest that the traumatic horizon we share with
modernism might be found precisely in this sense of disconnect, as well as
in the perception of an imperative to inspect the “barbarian” outside to current notions of individual and collective experience. In this perception fear
about the ruinous consequences that might ensue if one were to abandon
old constructs and beliefs holds the balance with awareness that failure to
scrutinize the old notions is already producing calamitous effects.
Benjamin’s positive notion of barbarism recalls the radical interrogation
that is at the heart of the ethos championed by Michel Foucault in “What is
Enlightenment?” Foucault’s discussion is relevant in this context because it
outlines the two ends of a field of tension in which the Western discourse
on the human has unfolded at least since the eighteenth century. On the
one hand there is the Enlightenment ethos of modernity, an attitude driven
by an exhilarating critique of the historical “limits that are imposed on us”
and by the “experiment with the possibility of going beyond them”
(Foucault, Reader 50). At issue is a constant reinvention of the parameters
of what it means to be human whose quintessentially modern site is art, as
Foucault maintains in pointing to Baudelaire’s heroic self-stylization. At the
other end of the spectrum there is a desire, sometimes as strong as a

the future’s past / 9

compulsion, to ground this critique in some stable notions of “man” or the
community of “men,”5 which in the West has issued in various forms of
humanism. Foucault is adamant about not conflating the two. Humanism,
he notes, is a variable set of themes and values that “has always been obliged
to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion, science, or
politics.” Unlike the inherently self-transcending reflection that defines the
Enlightenment, humanism operates within a circular field of ideological
legitimation, for it “serves to color and to justify the conceptions of man to
which it is, after all, obliged to take recourse” (Foucault, Reader 44). That is
to say, the Enlightenment ideal of radical interrogation of historical practices and constructs is antithetical to the circular operation of ideological
stabilization through which humanism at once borrows from and lends
legitimation to presumably desirable notions of the human. Taking
Foucault’s remarks to their logical conclusion, one could argue that the
ethos of the Enlightenment is of necessity a critique of humanism anytime
the advantages of the stable constructs humanism can provide are exceeded
by their disadvantages—for instance, their inability to offer a viable framework for interpreting experience, which is at the heart of Benjamin’s dispute
with late-nineteenth-century humanism.
And yet the restraint with which Foucault addresses the issue of humanism
in this text is remarkable for a thinker who had explored it time and again
as a powerful tool of subjugation in his genealogical inquiries into entwinement of discourse, knowledge, and power in Western culture. While it is
clear that his sympathies here lie with the imaginative critique Foucault
associates with the Enlightenment, his appeal for an investigation of the historical links between humanism and Enlightenment suggests that he is
nonetheless inclined to grant humanism a legitimate role in the field of
tension that has historically defined the Western discourse on the human. If
Foucault is willing to come to terms with humanism, it is because humanism
both expresses and fulfills a basic need for ideological stabilization, for providing a shared framework for individual and collective experience. At the
same time, the ethos of the Enlightenment is needed to curb the humanist
propensity for disguising a contingent, historical model of the human in
terms of essential, universal, suprahistorical truths. Thus the modern
condition Foucault probingly describes in his praise of the Enlightenment
appears founded in a paradox. On the one hand there is the need for a stable
framework of desirable humanness to ground meaningful action and
political life; on the other hand there is the imperative to constantly scrutinize the available paradigm(s) of desirable humanity in order to allow for
their outside to gain expression and for competing models to surface.
Enlightenment emerges in this context as the historical inquiry into the
possibility of a critique that retains its claim to ground political action while

10 / patrizia c. mcbride

drawing on models of humanness that are admittedly time-bound, contingent, and mutually competing.6 The quest that Benjamin saw triggered by
the contemporary disconnect between experience and available models of
interpretation becomes for Foucault the condition of possibility for modernity’s Enlightenment. Thus, when the modernist Baudelaire proposes a
notion of beauty consigned to the ability to see that the “lasting” is not
beyond or behind the “ephemeral,” it is rather nested deep inside it: what is
at stake for Foucault is not just a new historical concept of the beautiful, but
rather the ability of art to embody the ethos of modernity and to stake out
a field of meaningful action for the present (Foucault, Reader 39–42).
The operation of temporal inversion through which modernism returns
from the future, I argue, enables the contemporary critic to rethink the
familiar trope of a “death of the subject” so as to also view it as the collapse
of the self-assured subjectivity of nineteenth-century humanism. The relevance of the modernist ethos for the current century lies in its difficult
negotiation of humanist stabilization and Enlightenment critique. This
negotiation offers a broad framework for the writings collected in this volume, which are based on papers presented at a conference held by the
Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of
Minnesota in 2002. The cultural and geographical focus for the volume lies
in Northern Europe, with a special emphasis on Germany and Scandinavia.
Section one is dedicated to the politics of music in the tension between
high and popular culture. Marc Weiner’s contribution explores the anxieties
underlying the binary oppositions that structure the modernist perception
of music. In focusing on the ultraconservative composer Hans Pfitzner,
Weiner analyzes his best known opera, Palestrina, as expressing Pfitzner’s
anxieties about the instabilities of these binaries, especially the one opposing written and performed text. Such anxieties, Weiner suggests, cannot be
simply accounted for in terms of Pfitzner’s extreme right-wing ideology, but
rather cut across the political spectrum of the modernist reflection on
music. In further complicating the political assessment of the modernist
musical imagination, Weiner stresses that Pfitzner’s aesthetic practice often
contradicts the fears expressed in his theoretical work, thus mitigating the
very binaries he set out to reinforce. Carl Niekerk’s chapter examines Gustav
Mahler’s musical practice from the perspective of a complex, cultural border
crossing. In drawing on the Dutch reception of the composer at the beginning of the twentieth century, Niekerk reconstructs Mahler’s paradoxical
articulation of German and Jewish identities through such sources as
Richard Wagner’s music and Julius Langbehn’s Rembrandt as Educator.
The writings in section two articulate the multiple intersections of the
discourses on art, culture, and race that negotiated the humanist legacy in
Scandinavia. Poul Houe examines the 1882 novel Germanernes Lærling (GL;

the future’s past / 11

The Teutons’ Apprentice) by Danish writer Karl Gjellerup as paradigmatic
for the aporias of the modernist movement in Nordic literature. Houe traces
Gjellerup’s move away from naturalism and embrace of a secularized religiosity inflected with neo-Romantic mysticism as symptoms of a humanist
resistance to the modern movement. Gjellerup’s ambivalent stance, so Houe,
succeeded in problematizing both the discourse of humanism and the practice
of modernism. Along similar lines, Monika Zagar reads Knut Hamsun’s
novel Ringen sluttet (The Ring is Closed, 1936) as expressing the predicament of humanist subjectivity in modernity. As Zagar argues, the novel casts
its protagonist Abel Brodersen in the deeply oxymoronic and racially overdetermined position of the “white negro” to at once denounce the modern
domestication of eccentric humanity and express modernity’s impossible
quest for authenticity. Nils Roll-Hansen reconstructs the intellectual and scientific roots of the eugenics movement in Scandinavia through a comparison
with Nazi Germany. In focusing on the practice of sterilization, Roll-Hansen
traces the complex relation between science, technology, and politics in pre–
and post–World War II Scandinavia in order to offer a meditation on the
political role of science in our day.
Section three examines the modernist negotiation of the human in the
fields of the life sciences and technology. Andreas Michel questions received
wisdom on the illiberal turn taken by German scientific discourse in the
first decades of the twentieth century. In examining the cultural writings of
German engineers, Michel shows how their attempt at reconciling technology and culture did not always lend credit to the theory of a fascist-leaning,
“reactionary modernism,” that Jeffrey Herf articulated in his influential
study. Thomas Haakenson focuses on the category of “immediate visual
perception” articulated within the life sciences in late-nineteenth-century
Germany and inscribed in the organization of Rudolf Virchow’s pathbreaking Museum of Medical Pathology in Berlin. According to Haakenson,
this discourse forms a backdrop for Hannah Höch’s photomontages, which
visually turned the new scientific standard of perception on its head in order
to critique its surreptitious domestication of the human.
Section four focuses on the modernist contribution to architecture and
urban planning. Sabine Hake undertakes a reevaluation of the utopian imaginary of the architectural avant-garde by drawing on Ludwig Hilberseimer’s
1928 proposal for an office and business complex in Berlin’s Friedrichstadt.
According to Hake, Hilberseimer’s never-realized, hyper rationalistic design
belies a fear of the chaotic space of the city, while at the same time exemplifying the avant-garde’s propensity for aesthetic solutions that suppressed the
socioeconomic and cultural divisions of Weimar Germany. Janet Ward also
scrutinizes the visual imaginary of the architectural avant-garde to raise the
question about the democratic potential of urban architecture in our day. In

12 / patrizia c. mcbride

her chapter, the multicoded trope of the tower of Babel serves as a catalyst for
reflections on the expressionist tower, the urban skyscraper, and the missing
Twin Tower silhouette of the World Trade Center.
Sections five and six are dedicated to the exploration of visual culture,
especially film and painting. Maria Makela probes the political valences of
the postexpressionist, representational visual styles associated with New
Objectivity. Makela pleads for an analysis that refrains from typecasting the
style and its practitioners as either left or right wing. As she argues, New
Objectivity “meant different things at different times even within the career
of a single artist,” as demonstrated by Rudolf Schlichter’s tortuous trajectory from left-wing intellectual to Nazi sympathizer to Nazi critic. Richard
McCormick’s section sets out to question conventional wisdom regarding
the expressionist roots of the American film noir. In reviewing the American
career of three prominent émigré directors, Fritz Lang, Georg Pabst, and
Billy Wilder, McCormick shows how their influence on Hollywood’s film
noir owes more to the sardonic realism of New Objectivity than to the lateRomantic irrationalism commonly associated with expressionism. Matthew
Rohn examines the post–World War II reception of German modernism
through the lens of the most influential art critic in the United States,
Clement Greenberg. Rohn reconstructs the early Cold War framework that
led Greenberg to revise his early endorsement of Germanic modernist
painting in favor of a French modernism untainted by National Socialism
and Marxism. Lutz Koepnick’s chapter examines the architecture of Hitler’s
Alpine retreat at Berghof as emblematic for the paradoxical principle
governing much of National Socialist visual culture, namely, its endeavor to
engage the modern so as to escape from it. As Koepnick shows, the cinematic, visual space construed by the Berghof deploys radical strategies of
spatial modernization in order to neutralize “the multiplicity of modern
embodied vision” and “to lodge seductive equations of power and sight
directly in the beholders’ senses.” In the final section, Koepnick discusses
two installations by Marcel Odenbach, which offer a keen commentary on
the manipulation of sight performed by the architecture of the Berghof.
Linda Schulte-Sasse investigates the symbolic doubling of art and life
within the gender economy of two Nazi feature films, Venus Before the Court
(1941) and Freed Hands (1939). While both movies ostensibly celebrate high
art and modern patriarchy as true paths to women’s liberation, this very
message is undercut by the low-brow, kitschy nature of the entertainment
film favored by the German film industry in the Third Reich, as it is explicitly
foregrounded by the farcical elements of the 1939 movie.
The writings in the final section interrogate the potential for our day of
the critique of liberalism articulated by the prominent political theorist and
Nazi ideologue Carl Schmitt. Chantal Mouffe draws on Schmitt to analyze

the future’s past / 13

the limits of the Western model of liberal democracy. The liberal postulates
of rational communication and consensus, so Mouffe’s Schmittian argument, fail to grant expression to the existential antagonisms that underlie
political life. According to Mouffe, the resurgent fundamentalisms of the
post–Cold War period can be seen as the radicalization of antagonisms,
which liberalism invisibilizes rather than confronting. Finally, William
Rasch reconstructs Schmitt’s polemics against the liberal argument through
which the United States sought to legitimize its newly gained hegemony in
the world politics of the interwar period. Rasch shows how Schmitt’s main
charge, according to which liberalism’s celebrated rule of law does not
overcome, but rather surreptitiously naturalizes the preliberal concept of
sovereignty, serves well to articulate the limits of the liberal claims that
continue to authorize U.S. foreign policy today.
Notes
1. For an account of the postmodern debates in aesthetics, philosophy, and social
theory, see Calinescu 1987; Huyssen 1986; Bauman 1991; and Sheppard 2000.
For attempts at delimiting postmodernist from modernist practices see Ihab
Hassan’s and Umberto Eco’s typological models; for accounts that see in postmodernism not a qualitative change, but rather a radicalization of modernist
concerns and practices, Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What Is
Postmodernism” (in The Postmodern Condition) is instructive. See also Art
Berman’s account of modernism as modernity’s bad consciousness in chapter one
of his Preface to Modernism. As Richard Sheppard has noted, the great accomplishment of the postmodern debates lies in having established a connection
between modernism as an aesthetic sensibility and modernity as a social and economic process, and in having raised anew the question of the critical role of art
in modernity. Pivotal essays in this regard were Jürgen Habermas’ “Modernity
Versus Postmodernity” (1980; trans. 1981) and Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism
or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1984; reprinted in Postmodernism, or
the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism).
2. See the arguments made by Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism.
3. See Huyssen’s essay “Mapping the Postmodern,” from 1984, reprinted in After
the Great Divide 178–221, here 218.
4. See for instance Francis Fukujama’s The End of History.
5. I purposely retain the gendered formulation deployed by Foucault as symptomatic
of the mechanisms of exclusion that inform the generalizing and universalizing
labels of humanism.
6. As Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow have argued, in his reading of Kant Foucault
pursued a notion of maturity—that is, a model of humanness worth striving for—
that is no longer grounded in presumably atemporal laws and metaphysical truths
about the human, but instead derives its legitimation precisely from self-referential
reflection on its historicity and contingency. Dreyfus and Rabinow 118.

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Section I
High, Low, and Other: The
Politics of Music

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Hans Pfitzner and the
Anxiety of Nostalgic Modernism
Marc A. Weiner

The perception of sound unfolds in the modernist imagination across a
trajectory of polar oppositions that are legacies of long-standing musical
traditions. Already in the nineteenth century, Wagner’s juxtaposition of
German versus non-German aesthetic practice formed a conceptual nexus, a
structure of thought, that reappears in the works of Nietzsche, with its polarization of northern and southern art, and in the reflections on music in the
writings of a host of celebrated German and Austrian authors of the early
twentieth century, such as Hauptmann, Dauthendey, Schnitzler, Werfel, Hesse,
and Thomas Mann, and of course in the critical reflections of Theodor Adorno.
The perception of music through a conceptual structure that opposes
one category against another by no means vanished as the Frankfurt School
was superseded by its postmodernist followers, for Adorno’s polarizations
find their structural parallel in the recent work of Peter Sloterdijk, who—in
an essay entitled “Where are we when we hear music?” (Wo sind wir, wenn
wir Musik hören?)—has argued that our entire musical experience can be
segregated into two categories that are nonetheless intimately, dialectically
related: into a kind of music that is outward-directed, recalling for Sloterdijk
the post-Lapsarian experience of birth, and the kind of music that expresses
a yearning for a return to stasis, to rest, to the fluidity of preconsciousness,
or to the timeless tranquility of the womb:
Prior to individuation, we hear in an anticipatory fashion—that is, fetal
hearing anticipates the world as a noise- and sound-totality [Geräusch- und
Klangtotalität], which is always in the process of developing; it listens
ecstatically in the darkness toward the world of sound, usually oriented in a
mundane or worldly fashion [meist weltwärts orientiert]. . . . After the formation
of the subject, we hear backwards—the ear wants to undo the world as a
noise-totality, longs to return to the archaic euphonious state of the
pre-worldly interior, it activates the memory of a euphonic stillness-as-being

18 / marc a. weiner
[Enstase], which accompanies us like an afterglow from Paradise. One could
say that the individuated or unhappy ear strives inexorably from the real
world back to a space of the inmost a-cosmic reminiscences.
Understood in this way, music was always the connection between two
tendencies, which created two dialectically related gestures. One leads out
of a positive nothingness, out of the world-less, interior, uterus-familiar
[aus dem Schoßhaften] toward the world into the manifestation, the open
scene, the world arena—the other, out of the fullness, the dissonance, the
overburdened back into the world-less, the free, the interiorized. The
music of the coming-into-the-world is a Will to Power as sound, which
emerges along the lines of a continuum from within and which desires
itself like an irrepressible life gesture; the music of retreat, however, after
the dissolution of the continuum, strives to return to the a-cosmic condition of hovering [in den akosmischen Schwebezustand], in which the damaged life, as an Unwill to Power, collects and heals itself (Sloterdijk, “Wo
sind wir” 301; see also “Poetik der Entbindung” and “Die sokratische
Maieutik”).1

This last observation brings to light something that I feel informs other
oppositions in the modernist perception of sound as well, namely, an
anxiety that helps to account for the rigidity of these polarized extremes.
Just as the move out into the world is fraught with danger, so the desire for
a return to the warmth of stasis may prove a utopian fantasy, something in
danger of never being regained. Though this is seldom articulated as such, a
good deal of the work on musical modernism implicitly concerns the
psychological investment, the anxiety behind its pervasive polarized motifs
of a loss of control and a recurrent nostalgia that typifies the modernist
musical imagination. On the one hand, music emerges here as a sign of
insurrectionary, libidinal forces usually associated with leftist politics
(that is, “outward-directed music”; this is certainly how it appears in the
works of Thomas Mann), and on the other, it can also be associated with
something that is more familiar and more comforting, with the status quo
and a longing for tradition, as something more conservative. Of course, this
bifurcated model (juxtaposing interiority and stasis with exteriority and
teleological development) is so simplistic as to prove ultimately difficult to
apply to a host of aesthetic objects and projects in the modernist age, but
nonetheless, if Sloterdijk is right, both the outward or future-oriented and
the introspective or nostalgic trajectories of Western music are based on an
originary cataclysmic event, one that scars the perception of music forever,
and it is this repressed event that may help to account for the pervasive
psychological investment in musical polarities that shows up repeatedly in
this period. This perception of music as scarred transcends both its manifestation as an art perceived as volatile or threatening and one that functions
as a hallmark of tradition.

pfitzner and nostalgic modernism / 19

The work of Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949)—that most cantankerous of
conservative musical modernists and in his day rivaled for the title of
preeminent German composer only by Richard Strauss (Mahler-Werfel 25,
164)—constitutes an example of the modernist musical imagination
affiliated not solely with music as a sign of leftist insurrectionary forces, but
quite the opposite, with avowed indebtedness to venerated musical
traditions that constitute for Pfitzner the longed-for status quo, the preLapsarian point of rest so threatened by the outward-directed forces of
change in the modern world. The fact that Pfitzner’s fame was so extensive,
and yet so temporally circumscribed, makes him a figure particularly revealing of his time.2 While his work is located at the far end of the right-wing
of the political spectrum, it also reveals an anxiety that collapses the
polarizations of musical modernism, and hence those found on both sides
of the political experience.
Pfitzner’s work, like that of his great model, Wagner, unfolds according
to a cognitive system that views the world in terms of binary oppositions, so
that a given aesthetic practice is defined for him by another kind of art that
it rejects. The rigid, thematic oppositions in Pfitzner’s reflections on music
that define the sociopolitical world of early-twentieth-century Germany are
well known: left-wing foreigners, internationalists, Bolsheviks, and Jews
form one wing of a cultural climate vilified by those with whom Pfitzner
identifies: German nationalists faithful to—and longing for—the political
hegemony and a set of values of the Wilhelminian Empire. These binarisms
are informed by other tropes as well, such as the feminine versus the
masculine, the popular versus the more esoteric, the public versus the private spheres, the masses versus the individual, the ephemeral versus the
legitimate, and the insurrectionary versus the law-abiding citizen. Pfitzner
abhors the influx into Germany in the postwar years of foreign cultural
production—such as jazz, boxing, the circus, and film—and the experimental and innovative musical practices of the New Vienna School of
Schönberg, Berg, and Webern, as well as that of his contemporaries Werner
Egk, Carl Orff, Ernst Kåenek, and Ferruccio Busoni, all of them representing for him a disrespect for the proven superiority of German musical
tradition manifested in the works of Beethoven, E.T.A. Hoffmann,
Schumann, and above all Wagner, whose sole representative and legitimate
heir Pfitzner believed himself to be (Adamy 41–85; Skouenborg 9–17;
Weiner, Undertones 35–71).
What interests me more is another binarism that has received far less
attention in the recent discussion of Pfitzner, namely the opposition within
his essays and music dramas of signifier and signified, of the material of
representation and the transcendental or suprasensible realm to which it
alludes—an opposition and a preoccupation that directly link Pfitzner to

20 / marc a. weiner

Wagner and to the German idealist tradition—because that opposition
makes clear the tremendous anxiety underlying virtually all of the other
oppositions just mentioned, an anxiety that these rigid, polarized structures
will collapse, thus making impossible a return to tradition as the guarantor
of identity, of (to refer once again to Sloterdijk’s model) stasis as repose
(examples of the discussion of Pfitzner within the last twenty-five years can
be found in Adamy; Williamson; Vogel; and the 2001 special issue of The
Musical Quarterly devoted to the composer). The opposition of music as
conceptual form and sounding presence harbors within it a fear that the
place of repose, the pre-Lapsarian point, the “afterglow from Paradise” that
is necessarily superior to every specific, and therefore ephemeral quotidian
experience, can never be perfectly achieved, leaving the conscious subject,
the “unhappy ear” awash in the flow toward “the world arena.”
Pfitzner was primarily concerned with what he believed to be the development of an irreverent, capricious, and willful approach to the performance,
and especially the staging, of musical-dramatic works in the opera houses of
early twentieth-century Germany, manifested most blatantly perhaps in the
experimental stagings of the Kroll Oper in Berlin. In response to the changing cultural scene in early twentieth-century Europe, with its growing
cosmopolitanism and experimentation, Pfitzner sought to establish guidelines for controlling the means by which an artwork could be interpreted,
both by those who mediate its reception (such as directors and performers)
and by the public at large. In his published writings from 1905 to 1929—
Stage Tradition (Bühnentradition), The Futurist Danger (Futuristengefahr),
The New Aesthetics of Musical Impotence (Die neue Ästhetik der musikalischen
Impotenz), and above all in his lengthy aesthetic treatise Work and
Performance (Werk und Wiedergabe)—part diatribe and part instruction
manual in the art of stage production as faithful reproduction—Pfitzner
argued for universally applicable, normative guidelines, or even rules, that
would guarantee the superiority of German music, of music structurally
based on an original idea (or Einfall), and of the execution of such music
precisely as its composer had imagined it (cf. Behne; Ermen; Osthoff ).
Virtually all of his polemical writing is based upon an anxiety concerning
the written word and the written signs of musical notation, upon which he
is dependent but views with great skepticism. Pfitzner’s dilemma is that, as
an opera composer, he is dependent on the intervention of third parties to
interpret and execute the written instructions of his works, and for that
reason he opens Werk und Wiedergabe (1929) with a section on different
genres distinguished by the degree to which they are subject to such mediation.
He distinguishes between those works that rely on signs, or “Aufzeichnungen,”
and those dependent on sensual representation, or “Sinnlichkeit.” He
therefore places the visual arts in a category of works that requires no further

pfitzner and nostalgic modernism / 21

mediation once completed, and he makes the same claim for written works
as well. I would like to quote a passage from his discussion of literary works,
because it reveals some remarkable assumptions regarding signification:
In a written book, everything that is sensual is drawn into that which is
rational. . . . For that reason this art is initially grasped through a cognitive
activity, in this case through that of reading. This corresponds to looking at a
painting or its figures; between creator and recipient there is no need of an
intermediary link; one doesn’t require reproduction through a third party.
(Pfitzner, Werk und Wiedergabe 4)

In addition to the split between ratio and the corporeal—and with it the
implied fear of sensuality—the passage is interesting because it shows that
Pfitzner denigrates and disavows the mediating function of the written text,
viewing it instead as a transparent and universally available phenomenon
that circumvents or bypasses signification as mediation. Implicitly, the
materiality of writing as signifier recedes in favor of its postulated capacity
for transparency. Pfitzner relies on what he presents as an unequivocal property of the written sign, which allows for direct communication between
the artist/creator/author and the recipient. Indeed, throughout the treatise
the written word appears untroubled and privileged, the problem lying not
with multiple possibilities of its interpretation, but with those who choose
to disregard the written word because they believe they are not bound by
the wishes of its author (whether librettist, composer, or both).
Something of the sort was already implied in Pfitzner’s debate with the
music critic Paul Bekker, who, in his popular book on Beethoven from 1911,
had interpreted Beethoven’s works as conveying a series of “programs,”
“images,” and “poetic ideas” that Bekker believed should be accessible to a wide
and untrained audience. In Die neue Ästhetik der musikalischen Impotenz
(1919), Pfitzner characteristically responded to Bekker as follows:
He who does not understand that a Beethoven theme is to be enjoyed
directly, as a world unto itself, indivisible, untranslatable, he who has a need
to dissect, describe, or to interpret it, to chop it up into its component
parts, . . . [that person] doesn’t know what music is. (Pfitzner, Die neue
Ästhetik 155) (Italics added)

The key here is the notion that meaning can and should be conveyed in
a direct and apparently unmediated fashion that bypasses the processes of
signification, and with them all the aesthetic practices associated for
Pfitzner with the inferior vagaries of art in the modern public sphere.
The entire 350-page argument of Werk und Wiedergabe, too, constitutes
a diatribe against actors, singers, conductors, set designers, and directors
who fail to follow the composer’s transparent credo.

22 / marc a. weiner

And yet, Pfitzner’s theoretical reflections actually reveal a fear of the
instability of extreme polarizations, for the vituperative affect of loss,
violence, and impending annihilation everywhere apparent in his writings
discloses a concern over the possibility that the binarisms upon which his
view of aesthetic practices is based are in danger of collapsing. For while
Werk und Wiedergabe argues for a fidelity to the written word tantamount
to devotion, Pfitzner bases this argument on the vilified—because feared—
distinction between sign and signified. Already in his polemical text
Futuristengefahr (1917)—a debate with Ferruccio Busoni—anxiety over the
instability of the sign is made clear when Pfitzner states:
precisely because an exactitude, an absolute faithfulness is not possible,
precisely for this reason we have a profound duty, indeed we might even call
it the First Commandment of reproduction, to strive for faithfulness with all
the strength we can muster. This Commandment appears to me to be artistically so self-evident that actually I would like it treated as a moral issue.
(Pfitzner, Futuristengefahr 206) (Italics in the original)

The anxiety at the heart of this passage is typical, and what is more, it
reemerges not solely here and elsewhere in Pfitzner’s theoretical writings,
but in his aesthetic practice as well. For while the work for which he is best
remembered today, the “musical legend” Palestrina (1917) is most often
associated with the theme of inspiration, it can also be interpreted in conjunction with Pfitzner’s theories regarding the veneration of the written
word as a vehicle of authorial intention and his despair over the degree of its
reliability—over what happens to the work in the afterlife of the finished
composition. (It is no coincidence that the music drama emerged temporally contiguous with the Busoni polemic.) In this sense, the music drama
is a cipher for the vagaries of aesthetic practice in the irreverent, volatile,
and outwardly directed modern age. The nostalgia and despair at the heart
of the work are discernible behind, and overwhelm, its many thematic
polarizations.
Palestrina depicts a moment of crisis in the life of the composer of the
Counter Reformation, Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina, who is portrayed as
the last representative of a vanishing and glorious tradition of sacred music,
superceded and threatened by newer and inferior schools of composition
(cf. Toller). In this respect, he is unabashedly a representative of Pfitzner as
the last, and beleaguered, representative of a specifically German musical
tradition overwhelmed by the fads of musical internationalism, jazz, and
atonality in the modern age. The central plot device constitutes a decree
from Pope Pius IV that, owing to new practices of polyphonic vocal writing
that obscure the sacred text, all liturgical music since the Middle Ages will

pfitzner and nostalgic modernism / 23

be burned, unless an exemplary mass can be produced that demonstrates
that the word of God can be heard even in a polyphonic setting. Palestrina’s
friend, Cardinal Borromeo, beseeches the composer to undertake this task,
explaining that the “new [textual and musical] vagaries, monstrous to the
ear” (Die neuen Irrungen, unhold dem Ohre) are eating away at the traditions
that Palestrina reveres and represents (Pfitzner, Palestrina 12). Borromeo
explains that in recent polyphonic compositions, new texts have been added
to traditional sacred music, which, as he says, “makes the true text unintelligible” (Pfitzner, Palestrina 13). Such practice forms an allegory of bad
Wiedergabe, making it clear that the status and life of the artwork following
its composition is a mere postexistence, always in danger, and always inferior to the original and nostalgically privileged event of its creation. The
new compositions, then, resemble the work of the modern-day directors
Pfitzner so despised, with their willful and irreverent approach to the texts
of musical-dramatic tradition.
But Palestrina refuses to write the mass, and is then visited by the spirits
of nine former composers, followed by a scene in which a chorus of angels
dictates to him the exalted mass as Act I comes to a close. The moment
of inspiration—which constitutes, ironically, a dramatic representation of
unmediated art—is couched in musical themes that will later reappear in
contexts important for an understanding of the work’s portrayal of aesthetic
reception (Pfitzner, Palestrina: Klavier-Auszug 148–49).
Palestrina’s paradigmatic mass is presented in three manifestations:
initially, in its primal, originary state as it unfolds through the spontaneous
inspiration vouchsafed by the angels, and then twice again in two distinct,
though related kinds of reception. First, at the conclusion to Act I, after
Palestrina has collapsed at his desk and scattered the pages of the newly dictated mass on the floor, it is read by his student, Silla, and by his son,
Ighino, when the boys come in for their morning music lesson. When Silla
and Ighino read the mass, the orchestra quietly invokes in instrumental
form the vocal lines that had been sung by the angels (Pfitzner, Palestrina:
Klavier-Auszug 167–68).
This second manifestation of the mass unfolds in the brass as the boys
imagine its sounds in the interior, private act of obviously adequate reading;
we are shown that this is an example of silent and authentic reception, if
not Wiedergabe (it is, after all, not identical to the vocal lines of the
scene of the mass, with its Latin text), then at least a “renewed presence”
(Wiedergegenwärtigkeit) that both underscores its difference from the originary event and, at the same time, the possibility of authentic exegesis. The
mass is again read and interpreted when it is performed, between Acts II
and III, for the pope, who then in the final Act visits Palestrina personally,
recalls the experience of listening to the work (this is its third manifestation),

24 / marc a. weiner

and extols the composer as the “Fürst der Musik aller Zeiten”—the “prince
of music for all time” (Pfitzner, Palestrina 54), after which the drama comes
to a close.
In the “Miraculous Night” (Wundernacht) of Act I, we have a performance
that is disavowed and presented instead as unmediated and transparent, or
as a nonperformance. In Act III, we have a nonperformance representing
and recalling a performance (located between Acts II and III), and between
them there is the boys’ reading at the conclusion of Act I, the position of
which between these extremes highlights its ambiguous function. The dramatic conceit is that we hear what Palestrina hears as the voices of the angels
dictate to him their holy music. We are not subject to a public mediation,
but are privileged by our private, interior, and superior reception, an
experience that places the uniformity of a standardized individual response
above the uncontrollable vagaries and heterogeneity of a public performance
dictated by a mediating agent.
Our privileged hearing distinguishes our experience from that of the
pope, who must rely on the work’s execution through gifted singers. For
this reason, Pfitzner does not stage this mediated performance, but only the
pope’s recollection of it. When the papal choir boasts about their successful
singing of Palestrina’s mass, they are portrayed as vain and obviously inferior
to their angelic counterparts from Act I (Pfitzner, Palestrina 53). Their
performance is deemed successful only insofar as it faithfully reveals the
original text, and thus we may interpret this event, despite its necessarily
inferior status when compared to the angelic representation of a pure
aesthetic experience, as an allegory, again, of good Wiedergabe. But that still
means that even the best reproduction falls short of the ideal, Platonic
essence it evokes. The violin lines accompanying the pope’s vocal material,
like those heard in the horns when Silla and Ighino read the mass at the conclusion to Act I, echo the musical material of Palestrina and the angels
(Pfitzner, Palestrina: Klavier-Auszug 351–53). So Pfitzner wants it both
ways: the scene recalls good reception, but this is a reception that is based
on performance, which at worst is a falsification or distortion, and at best a
reproduction, second-best to the original work. Therefore, the status of the
mass as a temporally and materially determined accomplishment is both
reinforced through the banality of the singers and also partially disavowed
when the pope recalls its performance. It is characterized as an interior
communication with the godly creator who transcribed it (Palestrina) and
with God, that is, ironically, as unmediated. The materiality of the transcription is effaced—through it the pope directly hears the voices of the
angels—and yet it recalls the postangelic music of a mediation through
reading that had been staged at the end of Act I. Through these musicaldramatic manifestations, Pfitzner’s work articulates an ambivalence about

pfitzner and nostalgic modernism / 25

its own reception not unlike the anxiety at the heart of Werk und
Wiedergabe and emphasizes his dependence on the very thing he feared.
One could examine this ambivalence as a reaction to a reliance on a
concept of interiority and its necessary compromise in the act of public
performance, a tension that informs the political opposition of the citizen
as monad and the public sphere as the arena of collectivity. Or, to put it
differently (and to once again recall Sloterdijk), this ambivalence informs
the work’s longing for interiority and its fear that such a safe haven will forever
be threatened by the outwardly directed forces of change in the irreverent and
dangerous place of music in the modern public sphere. This would help to
account for the structure of Palestrina, which juxtaposes the interior world
of the composer in Acts I and III—both are set in his home—and the political
turmoil of Act II, which portrays a meeting of the Council of Trent, during
which the mass is only briefly mentioned, and obviously not appreciated, as
one item among many on the political agenda. The realm of politics is that
of the outwardly directed, post-Lapsarian musical experience, “the world as
a noise-totality,” while the monad seeks to retreat into the safety of an interiority that is increasingly womb-like, “the archaic euphonious state of the
pre-worldly interior,” an interiority that is forever longed for, but in danger
of vanishing into the realm of unrealized utopia (Sloterdijk, “Wo sind wir?”
301). During the first manifestation of the mass by means of a chorus representing angels, Palestrina clearly distinguishes between an interior, private
realm of godly inspiration and the mundane, earthly realm that will receive
the finished work when he exclaims:
I have been raised to
Overwhelming joy!
Worldly success lies far below.
Blessed I send my thankful glance
Toward heaven,
Inwardly praising
Love’s eternal power,
Which has brought peace to me. (Pfitzner, Palestrina 23) (Italics added)

Here, the emphasis lies on the interiority of the event (innig zu loben), and
Pfitzner’s dramaturgy essentially collapses the distinction between the interior experience of inspiration and its external manifestation, or execution. If
we read this text through the lens of Sloterdijk’s psychology of music, the
perception of acoustical space from the confines of a guarded interior seamlessly conflates with the nostalgia at the heart of Palestrina’s conservative
desire for a return to the status quo as a time, and a locus, of safety.
There are a number of ways Pfitzner’s work contradicts his theory, which
is not unusual for an artist—this was often the case with his forerunner

26 / marc a. weiner

Wagner—and the tensions between his theoretical reflections and aesthetic
practice serve to underscore even further the tendency for his insistent
polarizations to break down or to edge toward collapse. Many commentators have noted that Pfitzner’s music is far more experimental than his theory would lead one to believe. In his review of Palestrina at the Frankfurt
Opera, for example, Adorno remarked on the work’s innovative employment of timbre, or “Klang,” as an imaginative compositional device, and
others have recognized in such works as the Goethe-Lied “An den Mond”
and the C-sharp minor String Quartet an employment of sonic material
that so expands tonal expectations that it both recalls Debussy’s pentatonic
scales and at times virtually borders on the very atonality Pfitzner abhorred
in the New Vienna School (Adorno, “Pfitzner’s Palestrina” 35; Skouenborg
143, 151; on the quartet see Vogel 97; on the Goethe song see Williamson
234–37).
The binarisms at work throughout Pfitzner’s thought, with its distrust of
signification as the plaything of irreverent and often leftist, internationally
inclined, and sometimes Jewish intellectuals, brings Pfitzner’s body of work
close to that of a host of conservative thinkers of the modernist period, from
Hofmannsthal and George at the start of the century (Williams 6–20;
Norton passim), to Jünger and Riefenstahl during the development of
proto-fascist and fascist modernism. As Russell Berman has argued, one of
the fundamental principles of fascist aesthetics is its polarization of the
written word and image, a polarization that denigrates the former as associated with rationalism and parliamentary politics and privileges the latter as
a vehicle for immediate, sensate, and collective reception, so that the
emphasis on form suggests a suspicion of the vagaries of the hermeneutics
of literate culture and implies that the sensual impressions of image are
more reliable (99–103, 109–17).
On the other hand, Pfitzner’s ambiguity and his distinctions between
written and performed text, as well as the tensions between his avowed
polarizations and their mitigated repercussions in his aesthetic practice,
would suggest that his work by no means fits neatly into such a bifurcated
cognitive structure. And surprisingly, if one finds Berman’s model persuasive, this ambiguity on Pfitzner’s part would make him ill-fitted to the fascism
with which he is historically, that is, manifestly connected. Despite his
opportunistic association with the National Socialist movement in the
1930s (Kater 144–82) (during which his cantata From the German Soul—
Von deutscher Seele—was performed in a ceremony welcoming Goebbels to
Berlin, Pfitzner was made a Reichskultursenator, Pfitzner “Festspiele” were
organized as a celebration of German art under the auspices of the Nazi
Party, and the movement banned the very kind of art Pfitzner so
abhorred—from jazz to dodecaphony), the integrity of his aesthetic practice

pfitzner and nostalgic modernism / 27

might allow us to view his work in a far more favorable light than such a
model as Berman’s would cast on a contemporary figure such as Jünger.
While Pfitzner distinguishes between spirit, the written word, and thirdparty intermediaries necessary for performance, the fascist modernists
purportedly view Pfitzner’s second level of signification, the written word,
with the same degree of skepticism that Pfitzner directed against the
vagaries of contemporary performance and staging practice. For unlike the
National Socialists, Pfitzner’s aesthetics emerges from an extreme anxiety
concerning the inferiority of the hermeneutic abilities of those around him
and a pervasive longing for a return to a moment located somewhere in the
past, including the moment of creation of his own works of art, and manifested in a variety of other superior German works as well. This distinction
may partially mitigate a comparison of Pfitzner with the National Socialists
that his historical position and biography would otherwise justify. Such
unyielding arrogance and cultural nostalgia, such outward and inward
movements of the imagination, recur throughout not only Pfitzner’s work,
but that of his leftist modernist contemporaries as well, betraying a widespread reliance on bifurcated conceptual models that recur across the
political spectrum, and in this respect, Pfitzner is a symptomatic figure.
This description of Pfitzner could equally apply, for example, to the work of
his strangest of bedfellows, Theodor W. Adorno. Where would we place
him in Sloterdijk’s categories of psychic-sonic perception? One has only
to think of Adorno’s notoriously reactionary writings on jazz and film—the
very cultural production of the modern age that Pfitzner so abhorred—
to discern a similar effect of despair and a fear of annihilation that are everywhere apparent in Pfitzner’s writings (Adorno, “Abschied vom Jazz,” “Jazz,”
“Über Jazz,” “Zeitlose Mode: Zum Jazz;” Weiner, “Urwaldmusik” 483–85).
I choose to compare Pfitzner and Adorno precisely because one would think
of them as so diametrically opposed, owing to their distinctive political (not
to mention ethnic) affiliations. The point is not simply that they shared a
distaste for specific cultural works deemed foreign, but rather, that the similar affect that accompanied their thought demonstrates the pervasive
nature of the tension between the outwardly directed music of which
Sloterdijk speaks and the nostalgia that constitutes its despairing alternative.
For Adorno’s polarized categories (of E, or “ernste [serious]” and U, or
“Unterhaltungs- [low-brow or trivial] Musik,” for example) also reveal an
anxiety that one may be overwhelmed by the libidinal forces of outwardly
directed change, even as one recognizes the futility of searching for a lost
and purportedly superior past (Einleitung 199–218). Adorno’s nostalgia is
readily apparent, though it is never explicit, and it is a key to his historical
and cultural moment (Subotnik 17–18, 21–22; Thomas, passim). No wonder
the authentic artwork retreats from the inferior public sphere in both

28 / marc a. weiner

Pfitzner’s and Adorno’s thought. The contours of the artworks they deem
superior may be vastly different, but the affect—which locates the subject in
Sloterdijk’s despairing “afterglow from Paradise”—that accompanies both
of them and the works they mutually reject is not. It is a signature of the
modernist imagination.
Notes
1. All translations are my own.
2. Pfitzner was championed—and later vilified—by Thomas Mann (Abendroth
222), despised by Bertolt Brecht (Lucchesi 94, 283) and Georg Kaiser (Kaiser
113), and made note of in the reflections of a number of prominent thinkers in
the early twentieth century, including Musil (Musil, Tagebücher 481–82;
Tagebücher: Anmerkungen 309–10) and Schnitzler (Schnitzler 179).

Mahler, Rembrandt, and the
Dark Side of German
Culture
Carl Niekerk

Musicologists have lately argued that Gustav Mahler is a composer with
great affinity to the avant-garde. This argument is based on the observation
that the principles underlying Mahler’s compositions bear great resemblance to those of the so-called Second Vienna School. This section tries to
develop the same argument from a Cultural Studies perspective by focusing
on the philosophical, political, and aesthetic debates dominating the discourse about German culture in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Peter Bürger has defined the historical avant-garde as the moment in
Western art when artists no longer pursued one ideal form of art, but
instead started experimenting with all available existing artistic forms
(Theorie 23). Theodor Adorno, in his long and problematic essay on
Mahler, thinks that at the core of Mahler’s music there is indeed an overreliance on older musical materials and forms (Mahler 126). Adorno sees
this as something negative in that it ties Mahler’s work to outlived ideologies, but, as I show in the following, Mahler’s use of tradition also has a
critical and emancipatory side.
According to Peter Bürger, in the historical avant-garde the work of art
enters a stage of self-reflection and also of self-criticism regarding its functioning in society (Theorie 28). In a highly specialized society in which art
has become something abstract, accessible to only a small number of consumers, the avant-garde wants to reinvest art with a critical and political
potential. Self-reflection in Mahler takes on the form of a critical adoption
of the German cultural tradition, and in particular of the imprint that
Wagner’s aesthetic and political writings have left on the German cultural
landscape. While Mahler is, on the one hand, in awe of the formal innovations underlying Wagner’s work, he cannot but feel highly uncomfortable

30 / carl niekerk

with its anti-Semitic undertones. In spite of the fact that Mahler’s concept
of culture is indebted to Romanticism and to a concomitant view of culture
as a conversation among great men—his interest in Rembrandt, to be discussed in detail later, is a case in point—his cultural agenda nevertheless
approaches the ideal of the historical avant-garde.
In addition to Mahler’s experimentation with inherited musical forms
and materials and the element of self-reflection in his work, there is a third
aspect of his oeuvre that brings him into proximity with the historical
avant-garde. Bürger points to the ambiguous relationship the avant-garde
work of art has to politics and to reality outside the realm of aesthetics. On
the one hand, the avant-garde acknowledges the autonomy of art and the
split between art and society; on the other hand, its ambition is to bridge
the gap between art and the outside world and to bring art back to
the people by associating itself with a progressive political agenda.1 In the
following, I argue that there is, particularly in Mahler’s later compositions,
a polemical and critical impetus that self-consciously attempts to construct
alternative traditions. In his later compositions—in the following I mainly
discuss the Seventh Symphony, but similar observations can be made about
the Eighth and Das Lied von der Erde—Mahler develops and articulates a
progressive notion of alterity that gradually moves to the core of his work.
Mahler articulates, I argue, an increasing interest in the margins of German
culture.
Dutch culture can be understood, in part, as a margin of German
culture. With that remark I do not mean to idealize Dutch culture; fin de siècle
Dutch culture was not particularly progressive or experimental.2 Its importance for Mahler lies not in the fact that it presents an important alternative
national tradition or another canon as a point of orientation, but rather in
its ability to represent alternative aspects of German culture—to function as
a margin of German culture. There existed a lively interest in German
culture in the Netherlands around 1900, as well as a curiosity about French
and English culture. Rather than conceiving of Dutch culture from the
standpoint of a strong national tradition, it might be more productive to see
it as a culture of margins, as a border zone where different identities meet.
This would explain a certain skepticism in the Netherlands toward the
nationalistic and often conservative tendencies underlying the national
cultures surrounding it. It is precisely this skepticism that, I would argue,
attracted Mahler to the Netherlands. It is interesting to note that Mahler
apparently spoke quite openly about his Jewishness to his Dutch contacts
(Nikkels 331), and in other respects as well he was quite outspoken while
in the Netherlands. At a dinner party hosted by the affluent benefactors of
the Concertgebouw, Mahler—often said to have conventional literary
taste—created quite a stir by forcefully defending Multatuli, the Dutch

mahler, rembrandt, and german culture / 31

author of Max Havelaar, a novel highly critical of colonialism (Micheels,
“Gustav Mahler” 25, 33).
Mahler visited Amsterdam four times (in 1903, 1904, 1906, and 1909),
mostly to rehearse and conduct his own music with the still very new
Concertgebouw orchestra. Two figures were particularly important for him
at this point. Mahler’s main contact in Amsterdam was Willem Mengelberg
(1871–1951), the young but internationally quite famous conductor who
was to lead the Concertgebouw for half a century, from 1895 to 1945.
Mahler also developed a close relationship with Alphons Diepenbrock
(1862–1921), a classics teacher, private tutor, part-time composer and conductor, strongly influenced by Wagner and Nietzsche. It is clear that Mahler
could discuss his music and intellectual interests on a very sophisticated
level with these men. But above all, in Amsterdam Mahler found a conductor and an orchestra excited about performing his music and willing to use
unconventional means to foster interest in it.
Rembrandt
According to Willem Mengelberg, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was meant at
least partially as an acoustic representation of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. In
Mengelberg’s copy of the second movement of the score of the Seventh the
following note can be found: “Strict march. ‘Night Watch’ Rembrandt.
Left, right, left, right. Suggest olden times’ ” (De la Grange, Triumph 852).
Mahler had seen Rembrandt’s Night Watch during his first visit to
Amsterdam in late 1903 (Micheels, “Gustav Mahler” 25); he started composing the second movement of the Seventh, the first of two Nachtmusiken,
half a year later in the summer of 1904 (De la Grange, Triumph 842).
During his second visit in October 1904 he went by Rembrandt’s house and
was clearly very impressed (De la Grange, Triumph 370). During these visits, Amsterdam was preparing for a celebration of the 300th anniversary of
Rembrandt’s birth (1606/1906). As part of the planned festivities, four
Dutch composers were asked to write music based on Rembrandt’s etchings. Mahler’s friends Willem Mengelberg and Alphons Diepenbrock were
among them (Zwart 205).
Mengelberg’s annotation concerning Rembrandt can no doubt be traced
to conversations between himself and Mahler. It is impossible to discuss
Rembrandt reception in the German-speaking countries around 1900 without acknowledging Julius Langbehn’s extremely popular book Rembrandt
als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator) (1890). This book was a bestseller in
the 1890s; it went through 72 prints in just three years (1890–92).3
Langbehn was a conservative critic and a cultural pessimist, strongly influenced by Nietzsche. At the beginning of his project he observes that

32 / carl niekerk

Germany is in a state of cultural decline; a renewal of German society,
however, is possible via a return to its roots, and in particular to a tradition
personified by Rembrandt. It is easy to read and dismiss Rembrandt als
Erzieher as an example of conservative, elitist, ultranationalistic, imperialistic,
anti-intellectual, antidemocratic, and at times deeply racist and anti-Semitic
cultural criticism. This is all very true. But in accordance with the goals of
the conference on which this volume is based—thinking beyond master
narratives, looking beyond simple dichotomies such as “left/right”—I propose
bracketing Langbehn’s political intentions, and instead I want to focus on
his cultural criticism.
In Rembrandt als Erzieher, Langbehn attacks the modern world in which
sciences, mechanical thinking, and over-specialization dominate (103). In
particular, Langbehn criticizes the lack of individualism (3ff.) among his
German contemporaries, even though this is part of the essence of
Germanness. He is convinced that art will save the Germans (Langbehn 99).
A new synthesis is necessary, and the personification of this new synthesis is
Rembrandt and the tradition for which he stands. It is part of Langbehn’s
paradoxical argumentation that he demands more individualism from
German art while attempting to create a new collective consciousness (Hein
71). It is important to distinguish between such critical-deconstructive and
reconstructive impulses in Langbehn’s text. But why is Rembrandt of such
essential importance for Langbehn? Rembrandt is for Langbehn the most
individual of all German artists (9); “ein hoher Grad von Unregelmäßigkeit
Verschobenheit Eigenartigkeit” (a high degree of irregularity displacement
singularity) characterizes his work (12). This is the critical Langbehn
speaking. From a return to the tradition represented by Rembrandt,
Langbehn expects what he once calls “die Schaffung neuer geistiger Werte”
(the creation of new spiritual values)(268). More specifically, he hopes for a
deepening of German national consciousness beyond everyday politics:
“Früher war man kosmopolitisch, jetzt sollte man kunstpolitisch sein; eben
diese Kunstpolitik könnte das ideale Gegengewicht gegen die oft so
trivialen Interessen der jeweiligen Tagespolitik bilden” (Langbehn 269).
Langbehn’s alternative reconstruction of the German cultural tradition
has Romantic roots. The idea that art compensates for the disappointments
of political life—elements of this idea of Langbehn were adapted by
Thomas Mann in his Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of a NonPolitical Man) (Hein 61, 91–102)—can of course be traced back to
Romanticism. In many respects, Langbehn’s program is fairly typical for
conservative turn-of-the-century cultural criticism. However, this should
not make us overlook the fact that, in terms of cultural memory, his text
does contain a rather radical move; Langbehn wants to locate the center of

mahler, rembrandt, and german culture / 33

German culture outside Germany. He discusses the problem that Rembrandt
is Dutch and not German early in his text (Langbehn 9). But he sees this as
a purely political matter; “innerlich”—one could say: in spirit—Rembrandt
belongs to the Germans. Rembrandt figures as an alternative for the dominant cultural discourse that goes back to Winckelmann (Langbehn 30ff.), is
continued by Goethe—although Langbehn also tries to align Goethe with
Rembrandt—and Schiller, and is dominated by the “foreign” and therefore
“false” (Langbehn 33) ideals projected on ancient Greece.
It is highly interesting that Langbehn, in the process of his decentering
and then recentering of the German cultural tradition, also mentions
Rembrandt’s interest in Jews:
Eigen