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Monday, August 30, 2010

'When was Modernism'/ Report / MA Previous

Report by: Basreena Basheer

Raymond Williams was a welsh academic, critic and novelist. He is widely credited for the introduction of cultural studies and the cultural materialistic approach. His major works include Culture and Society (1958), The Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977).

In the lecture that was given on 17 March 1987 at the University of Bristol, William tries to critically analyse the cultural movement modernism, which spawned across Europe between 1890 and 1940. According to literary historians, modernism is a blanket term for an explosion of new styles and trends in the arts and aesthetics beginning in the later part of the twentieth century. The central image that is associated with modernism is a void or emptiness. Various innovations were brought about in literature, painting, music and so on. The main writers associated with modernism include T.S.Eliot, D.H.Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and so on. Modernism also came to be considered an elite movement as it was restricted only to a handful.

In his lecture, Williams tries to confiscate the romantic element off the modernist movement. One problem with the selective appropriation of the movement is that in giving credit to only few writers who departed from conventional writing tradition, the older traditional writers are ignored. What is being overlooked here is the fact that without the older traditional writers, modernism could not have happened. In Williams’ words, “writers are applauded for their denaturalizing of language, their break with the allegedly prior view that language is clear, and for their making apparent in the narrative the problematic status of the author and his authority. But in excluding the great realists, this version of modernism refuses to see how they devised and organized a whole vocabulary and its structure of figures of speech with which to grasp the unprecedented social form of the industrial city.”

One possible explanation for this selective appropriation according to Williams was the change in the media of cultural production in the late nineteenth century and their ideological consequences. Photography, cinema, radio and television were gaining wide scale importance during that time. The public was getting increasingly drawn by these new mediums. Hence the sudden change in the field of arts and aesthetics was a reaction reacting to the sudden progression of media as an effort to defend their own territories. Therefore innovations like the stream of consciousness, interior monologue and the like.

In addition to this, this so called cultural reformation occurred only in the metropolitan cities, the new centers of imperialism such as Paris, Vienna, Berlin, London, New York. This could be due to the rapid migrations across borders. Writers like Joyce, Pound etc. were constantly moving in and around these cities. But with the World War I and the introduction of passports, borders got sealed for the first time, thus constraining the free movements of writers and intellectuals. The writers thus felt estranged and alienated in their new homes, and therefore produced works which depicted this isolation from the society. That is, these works only signified their emotions and state of minds, and so these works cannot be seen as representative of the period. These selective works according to William “achieved comfortable integration into the new international capitalism”, the modernists as well as their works moved from being anti-bourgeois to bourgeois. Thus the works got commodified and “its forms lent themselves to cultural competition and the commercial interplay of obsolescence.


Pinto, Anil. Lecture notes. Christ University, Bangalore.

Williams, Raymond. “When was Modernism?” Art in Modern culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. Eds. Francis Franscina, and Jonathan Harris. London/New York: Phaidon, 1992.Print august 2010 august 2010

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