Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 20, 2000
Mark Jarzombek The Psychologizing of Modernity: Art, Architecture, History Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 327 pp.; 26 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0521582385)

Mark Jarzombek’s The Psychologizing of Modernity is in many respects a timely book. Drawing upon an impressive range of readings undertaken in 1994 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Jarzombek brings together parts of several of his earlier writings for the journal Assemblage, most significantly his 1994 essay, “De-Scribing the Language of Looking: Woelfflin and the History of Aesthetic Experientialism.” What is new is that the earlier question of “how would I write a history of the theory of aesthetic experientialism” is now transposed into the (Woelfflinean) ambition to write a “Prolegomenon to Critical Historiography.” It is in the last regard that its principal merit resides.

Let me start by noting I have a few general reservations about this book, which are easy to dispense with quickly. First, the language and its syntax, while generally precise in its philosophic rigor, is often abstruse, obdurate, recondite, tortured—in short, fashionable in an insolent poststructuralist way (pages are too often littered with thoughts of dissimulation, repression, contamination, deception, exploitation). Second, for a work that courageously dares to distill the notions of “history,” “academe,” and the “avant-garde” in a single peppery cauldron, the text is often characteristically “academic” in its pretensions. This bias becomes particularly clear in the political incantation resonating throughout the book, as the author, invoking the seemingly requisite rite of political lustration, intones his personal disdain for “bourgeois capitalist culture” and its victimization of those huddled masses. The third reservation I have is the author’s sometimes far-reaching ideological pedigrees. Over a few pages, for instance, he leads us from a somewhat innocuous remark of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe concerning the villa of the Prince of Pallagonia at Bagheria (via Woelfflin and Richard Muller-Freienfels) to the cultural aesthetics of Ludwig Volkmann and Adolf Hitler. Yet one wonders if—taking the same starting point and different intermediate stops—one could also not arrive at the spiritual brutality of Stalin and Soviet Realism? Or even the anguish of a Kurosawa film? This last question is of little importance to me, but the process does at times lack a certain rigor.

The more positive aspects of the study are foremost its rich sources of scholarly investigation and astute critical analysis. Two chapters in particular—"The Body Ethos" and “Theory Activism”—traverse largely unexplored terrain and reveal a treasury of facts and ideas that truly sheds new light on the issues in question. In “Body Ethos,” Jarzombek’s alightment on the psychologized archaeology of Heinrich Brunn is positively brilliant, and illuminating of the methodology of Woefflin, although the influence of Winckelmann on Brunn’s interpretive approach (especially the former’s sculptural descriptions) is not noted. Similarly, Jarzombek’s exposition of empathy-theory and its nuances is both studied and original, even if one does not follow him to the conclusion that “its political mentality was largely conservative.” The little-known sources that he exposes along the way, together with his portrayal of empathy’s insinuation into twentieth-century psychological tendencies, are invaluable.

The chapter on “Theory Activism” is likewise stimulating. It builds upon several chapters delineating the academic parameters of American theory in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The somewhat brief analysis of postmodernism brings together too many disparate tendencies under too general of a rubric, but the subsection on the “Sanctioning of Phenomenology,” in particular, raises a much needed discussion of the sudden “philosophizing” of theory in the 1960s. Much more work needs to be (and will be) done in this area—not just with the simultaneous “politicization” of the same theoretical terrain—but Jarzombek provides an intelligent start. I probably have more disagreements with him over these pages than on others, but I applaud his exposition of some embarrassing methodological complacencies. His constant vilification of the psychology of Rudolf Arnheim is, however, somewhat impolite (overcooked to the point of being undecorous), and it leads me to wonder how he would deal with the methodology of a Meyer Schapiro or even a Lewis Mumford.

The heart of his book, however, is the opening chapter, “A Prolegomenon to Critical Historiography,” and it is to this effort that we should devote most of our attention. The broad outline of Jarzombek’s argument, if I might dare to summarize a multifaceted discourse in a few words, is that modern theory is at risk of being swept along by a “false criticality,” one induced by both disciplinary and quasi-disciplinary forces controlling theory and historical deliberation. He is at times critiquing the all-out run for methodological cover that historians and theorists took in the twentieth century—first in psychology, then in philosophy (Hegel/Nietzsche), then in phenomenology, then in psychoanalysis, then in poststructuralism. Other times he is speaking to the covert and overt intrusion of avant-gardism into the processes of historical modeling. Jarzombek is concerned both with how critics such as Herbert Read, Clement Greenberg, and Vincent Scully, for example, eschewed criticality in their historical studies so as not to be seen as unmodern (or too scholarly), and with the historiographic practices that mimic those of the avant-garde (the collusive desire of the two to control history). At heart, however, is the thesis that historiography “lacks a critique adequate to the aesthetics of its practice.” To attend to this problem, he proposes a historiographic project that 1) critiques the historian’s practice; 2) expands into a larger disciplinary and ideological critique (one that problematizes its own objectivity); and 3) becomes “a more far-reaching, galloping interdisciplinary diegesis dealing with the fundamentals of epistemological construction” (he cites Roland Barthes’ Michelet as an example). Negatively, he also cites other tendencies that a critical historiography will not allow: two of which are how specialization and objectification of the discourse tend to co-opt or control the historical mission, and the tendency of the modern “authorial Self to obscure its complicitous relationship with the falsely extrapolated objectivity of bourgeois culture.”

Few will quibble with the first two parts of this historiographic project—even if Jarzombek himself initially fixates upon only a few components of the critique, such as his concern with the “everywhereness” of psychology in Western bourgeois culture. As yet there seems to be no room for a political component to this critique, even if politics is equally diffused (as psychology) within historical investigation and avant-garde rhetoric, and even if this diffusion has resulted (if one can speak frankly) in a rather bad, post-Berlin-Wall hangover. What makes Jarzombek’s analysis far more penetrating, in any case, is that he touches upon an anxiety that perhaps more than a few historians have felt for some decades now—that is simply the waiting for the endgame of this “collaging and mutilation of theoretical discourse,” so often sanctioned under the premise of avant-garde dispensation.

And here indeed is where one can have philosophical differences. Jarzombek is vehemently sincere in wanting to save theory (and the avant-garde) from the terribilita and hypocrisy of so-called bourgeois consciousness, seemingly by shielding them within their own historiographic metafictions and controlling directives. But can a theory of history indeed ever pretend to such blind ambition, that is, to remain outside of the contradictions of the culture that gave it birth? Is not the latter, in fact, a vital heuristic source in its own right (even when one views it less disdainfully)? Perhaps Jarzombek will agree with this point, but I still have a sense of unease about part three of his critical historiography, which is that “galloping interdisciplinary diegesis dealing with the fundamentals of epistemological construction.” I guess my principal reservation is that it seems too much like what we have already, and for much too long now. When is it that we, as historians and historiographers, may be allowed to study (and not uncritically or with feigned objectivity) the physical and conceptual remains of the particular mode of human intelligence that we were trained to undertake? But there seems to be other problems here as well. If Neo-avant-gardism, with its bad conscience and academic aloofness, has now reduced itself to a quirky phantom haunting ivory towers and (Brooklyn) museum corridors (with boastful and often puerile inflation), will not this epistemological exegesis reviewing its trail not also tend to follow the same frenzied pattern? Saying this another way, does not historiography always wrap itself around the latest trend in theory like a glove? Surely, and correctly, Jarzombek alludes to this problem in other instances. He also raises the more important question of how does epistemology suddenly, or ever, become un-self-conscious? How does it avoid becoming (Gadamer’s) “performance”? The reader will have to reflect upon and decide these issues for her or himself, and this is of course the value of this informed study.

Harry Mallgrave
Fellow, The Clark Art Institute.

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