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New Left Review 10, July-August 2001

In coolly proclaiming itself to be essentially the application of technique to matter, to what further consequences did modern art discover it was committing itself? Christopher Prendergast traces the ‘frightful clockwork of the world-structure’ in the games of Mallarmé, puppets of Flaubert and Kleist, musings of Mann, and the hurdy-gurdy of Cézanne overheard by T. J. Clark.



Art, Matter, Mechanism

W. H. Auden said he had two questions when reading a poem: ‘The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”. The second is: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?”.’ [1] The Dyer’s Hand, London 1962, pp. 50–1. Disarmingly—and deceptively—simple, Auden’s questions, jointly, take us to all manner of places, many of which have long since been vacated, most notably by those on indefinite postmodernist leave in the playground of ‘forms’. In particular, the second question—addressed to the quality of the human presence in the verbal machine and thus to the poem’s ethical significance—might well be viewed by some representatives of contemporary critical persuasions (for example, followers of Paul de Man) as the residue of a naive and sentimental humanism. Yet what happens when this second question is liquidated by the first, when the human leaves the contraption to its own devices—in various senses of the term, including the Russian Formalist one—is an issue of considerable importance. The following—a collection of strictly provisional thoughts inspired, in part, by T. J. Clark’s recent book on Modernist painting, Farewell to an Idea—engages with what is most uncomfortable in that issue, by way of a reflection on a modern view of art as, fundamentally, the application of technique to matter. [2] T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea. Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven and London 1993.

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Christopher Prendergast, ‘Modernism’s Nightmare?’, NLR 10: £3

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