In his sombre essay of 1915, ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, Freud begins by evoking the cultural ambience of the belle époque. For the educated European of the time, Freud claims, the pre-eminent artists and thinkers of the continent had contributed to a ‘common civilization’, unsegmented by political or linguistic barriers:
None of these great men had seemed . . . foreign because they spoke another language—neither the incomparable explorer of human passions, nor the intoxicated worshipper of beauty, nor the powerful and menacing prophet, nor the subtle satirist; and he never reproached himself on that account for being a renegade towards his own nation and his beloved mother-tongue.
But with dismaying speed this sense of a shared cultural heritage had disintegrated amidst the manipulative propaganda, raw animosity and unparalleled destruction of the First World War, a conflict which, according to Freud, ‘threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.’
It is both the strength and weakness of Peter Bürger’s book on the origins of postmodern thought that it takes this moment of civilizational collapse, so poignantly recorded by the first psychoanalyst, as its starting point. Strength, because Bürger—best known in the anglophone world for his 1974 Theory of the Avant-Garde—provides a lineage of postmodernism which reaches back far beyond the political disillusionment of the 68 generation, or the economic shift towards neoliberalism and post-Fordism, which critics on the Left have often seen as the source of the postmodern Stimmung. Weakness, because, despite his title, Bürger offers no real explanation of why ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postmodernity’ should have become the ubiquitous buzz words of cultural analysis in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Rightly sceptical of hyperbole about an epochal transition, Bürger regards postmodernism as essentially the latest expression of an oppositional stance internal to modernity. But, in consequence, he displays little interest in the social and cultural transformations which gave the tropes of postmodernism such global resonance. Indeed, his real interest is in the genealogy of French post-structuralist thought—and it is only in so far as the Parisian philosophy of the 1960s and 70s can be regarded as the intellectual powerhouse of recent cultural theory that his account has any real purchase on the question of the postmodern.
Yet within these confines, Bürger’s book does have original things to say. His lineage of French post-structuralism leads back to the mire and massacre of World War One, and the ‘crisis in the self-understanding of modernity’ that the slaughter provoked, by a double route, one more direct than the other. The first trail runs via the anarchic subversions of Dada—its founding manifesto published in Zurich by Tristan Tzara the year after Freud’s essay—and then via the Dadaist impulses that fed into French Surrealism. The second passes through the young Heidegger’s response to the turbulence of the interwar world, and the impact of his account of authentic being-in-the-world on the French Hegel renaissance of the 1930s. The vivid existentialist slogans of Alexandre Kojève’s reinvention of Hegel, in his lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, would have been unthinkable, Bürger contends, without the example of Sein und Zeit. ‘Man’, Kojève declares, giving Heidegger’s notion of ‘being-towards-death’ an exacerbating twist, is ‘death living a human life.’
These lines of influence may appear implausibly convoluted. But it is Bürger’s contention that they come together in the thought of those French writers of the 1930s who were to attain iconic status for the intellectual avant-garde of the sixties. Both Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot are, in their contrasting ways, responding to the collision of Hegel, Heidegger and Surrealism. More specifically, Bürger proposes that postmodern thought springs from the effort of these writers of the thirties to throw grit in the cogs of Hegel’s dialectic of recognition. Hegel’s philosophy represents for them the most profound attempt to think history as a developmental process, a collective human project in which civilization is progressively built not by the master, but through the imposed self-restraint and delayed gratification of the labour of the bondsman. It is Kojève who formulates the point with his typical aphoristic concision:
Lordship is an existential dead-end. The lord can either become stupefied through pleasure, or die as lord on the battlefield, but he cannot live consciously, and thus know himself as satisfied by what he is . . . Understanding, abstract thought, science, technology, the arts—all this has its origin in the forced labour of the bondsman.