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PopModernism. Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday

by Juan A. Suárez
The University of Illinois Press, Chicago and Urbana, IL, 2007
321 pp. Trade, $60.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 0252031504; ISBN: 0252073924.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
University of Leuven


In many studies the conviction still prevails that ‘pop’ and ‘modernist’ are antagonistic and incompatible terms. Seen from the perspective of modernism, popular culture continues to be dismissed as commercial, manipulative, superficial, and female, for few cultural movements have been so gender-sensitive as modernism. And seen from the viewpoint of pop culture, modernism is still accused of being formalist, elitist, arrogant, and conservative (certainly in comparison with the historical avant-garde, more relaxed in matters of high and low. Yet the example of Walter Benjamin, as the major theoretician of XXth Century modernism, as well as that of Surrealism, as its main an most globalized artistic representative, should have warned us against such a strict opposition, which is not only wildly overgeneralizing, but also and most crucially erroneous. As Juan A. Suárez convincingly demonstrates in his brilliantly written and very well informed —yet unfortunately poorly illustrated— study, the mutual presence of the popular and the modern, far from being a marginal or exceptional phenomenon, was at the very heart of American culture in the modernist era (1910-1960, roughly speaking).

PopModernism actually makes a double claim. First, that modernism has in all its forms, however diverse they may be, always a dark side, a hidden dimension, an unknown continent, which has to do with the popular, the latter being defined as a mix of ‘low’ and ‘mass media’ culture. Second, that the very evidence of this fact, which may seem to have become so obvious and all-pervasive in recent years, has been dissimulated by modernism’s self-definition as high, sophisticate, individual, and non-industrial culture, as much as by later dichotomist views of post modernism as the opposite of modernism (and since postmodernism used to be associated with the popular, the need for a thorough revaluation of the popular within modernism was almost inexistent). Yet Juan A. Suárez does much more than just calling our attention to the unnoticed —or at least largely undertheorized— presence of what he calls the popular. He also proposes a renewed definition of this mass-mediatized pop culture, and this conceptual reframing transforms his book in a vital conceptual and intellectual contribution to the study of modernism itself.

For Juan A. Suárez ‘popmodernism’ is less the simple addition of high and low, of elite and mass, of individual experiment and industrial streamlining, than the mutual contestation of these poles, which appear to be systematically intertwined in the modernist era. The concept of ‘noise’ does not designate the introduction of impure popular, mechanical, commercial forms in modernism’s aspirations toward pure form and toward purity in general; it is not just the clash of the ‘real world’ and the ‘world of art’ but a much more radical interrogation of what the relationship of ‘world’ and ‘art’ may imply. In the encounter between the popular and the modern, the popular resists incorporation: There is no dialectical ‘Aufhebung’ of the popular in the modern; the popular appears by definition as that what remains opaque, obscure, decentred, unlabeled, even meaningless, permanently adrift. And corollarily, in this encounter the modern the modern is not what serves as the antipode of the popular as noise; it becomes instead noise itself, incapable of maintaining the clarity and order it wants to impose.

PopModernism tells this story of contestation and disintegration in a short introduction and eight case studies, respectively on Vachel Lindsay’s theory of film, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta, John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joseph Cornell’s boxes, pictures, and films, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil, Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, and, finally, the film In the Street by James Agee, Janice Loeb, and Helen Levitt. In suggesting that these chapters can be read in any order, and that each of them comes back on the same issues, the author is too much modest, however. Not only is the ordering of the chapters masterfully directed, but the author has managed in foregrounding in each study one period, one medium, and genre, and one specific theoretical viewpoint of framework, which makes this book a wonderfully applied synthesis of the best of critical medium theory as well as the best of cultural history. The references range from McLuhan to kittler, from Macherey to Clifford, form Sedgwick to Hansen, from Brown to Kracauer, and it is a pleasure to underline moreover the extreme richness of the bibliography gathered in the footnotes (unfortunately this wealth is hardly reflected in the index which is, in comparison, a little skinny).

All the eight close reading by Juan A. Suárez are to be praised without any exception or restriction. The analyses are always sharp and clear, written with dash, enthusiasm and a perfect sense of rhythm. The contextualization is well-balanced (i.e. perfectly instructive and useful, never gratuitously accumulative). And last but not least: Juan A. Suárez succeeds in many cases to change our view of works, objects, authors, and practices we thought we knew. The best chapter in this regard is undoubtedly the one Joseph Cornell, in which Juan A. Suárez achieves the double goal of his important enterprise: to free us from conventionalized views of modernism (in this case the aesthetic and biographical interpretations of the boxes), and to make us hear the terrible noise underneath (in this case the proximity betweens Cornell’s objects as senseless ‘things’ and the Surrealist reuse of the mass media of their times).

In short, this is a great book, and one can only hope that it will be as much discussed as Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide or, more recently, Michael North’s Camera Works.



Updated 1st June 2007

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