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New Left Review I/167, January-February 1988

Tony Pinkney

Understanding Modernism: A Response to Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti’s stimulating contribution to the debate on Marxism and Modernism (‘The Spell of Indecision’, NLR 164) unfortunately elides, in its very opening sentences, a crucial aesthetic distinction—with the result that his critique of modernism is of much less general validity than he assumes. Frank Kermode long ago insisted, in a now famous essay, on the necessity for ‘a discrimination of modernisms’, and it is this that Moretti signally fails to provide. His critique of modernism is thus, ironically, as one-dimensional as the recent euphoric celebrations of it that he rightly deplores; his position is the mere mirror image of that of his antagonists, Lukácsian rather than Lyotardian. And this need to discriminate is all the greater in that we now have to hand, in Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, a powerful attempt to shift the debate on modernism beyond the frozen polarities of a simple for or against. [1] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, translated by Michael Shaw (Manchester University Press, 1984).

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