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Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World

Andreas Huyssen

In memory of Edward W. Said

The geography of classical modernism is primarily determined by metro-

politan cities and the cultural experiments and upheavals they generated:
Baudelaire’s Paris; Dostoyevsky’s or Mandelstam’s Saint Petersburg; Schoen-
berg, Freud, and Wittgenstein’s Vienna; Kafka’s Prague; Joyce’s Dublin; the
futurists’ Rome; Woolf’s London; dada in Zürich, Munich, and der blaue
Reiter; the Berlin of Brecht, Döblin, and the Bauhaus; Tretyakov’s Moscow;
the Paris of cubism and surrealism; Dos Passos’s Manhattan. This is the
standard continental European list with its few Anglo outposts, but it ignores
the modernism of Shanghai or São Paulo in the 1920s, Borges’s Buenos Aires,
the Caribbean of Aimé Césaire, the Mexico City of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera,
and Alfaro Siqueiros. These additions remind us that metropolitan culture
was translated, appropriated, and creatively mimicked in colonized and post-
colonial countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the most interest-
ing ways, modernism cut across imperial and postimperial, colonial and
decolonizing cultures. It was often the encounter of colonial artists and intel-
lectuals with the metropolis’s modernist culture that supported the desire for
liberation and independence. And it was the reciprocal though asymmetrical
encounter of the European artist with the colonial world that fed into the turn

A shorter version of this essay appeared in Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, eds., Geographies
of Modernism (London: Routledge, 2005), 6–18.
New German Critique 100, Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2007
DOI 10.1215/0094033X-2006-023 © 2007 by New German Critique, Inc.


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against bourgeois culture. The antagonistic ethos of European modernism

thus took on very different political shadings in the colony, which in turn
required literary and representational strategies in tune with the experiences
and subjectivities created by colonization. The crises of subjectivity and of
representation at the core of European modernism played out very differ-
ently in a colonial and postcolonial modernity. Such alternative geographies
of modernism have emerged on our horizon since the rise of postcolonial
studies and a new attentiveness to the genealogy of cultural globalization.
All these geographies are also shaped by their temporal inscriptions.
International modernism in the arts is usually said to last from the mid-
nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, but there are significant temporal and
spatial variants within that frame. Continental national cultures in Europe do
not operate in sync (French modernism precedes the German variant), and
different artistic media turn to modernism in different sequence (painting
and the novel come first in France, music and philosophy in Germany, and
modernist architecture is last to arrive everywhere). Such uneven develop-
ments, to use Marx’s term, depended on national traditions as much as they
reflected different stages of urbanization and industrialization. In addition,
modernisms in Europe diverged politically in significant ways. Before World
War II there was a fascist modernism, especially in Italy; a communist mod-
ernism on the margins of official Soviet culture; and a liberal modernism
incorporated into the popular front politics of the Comintern by the mid-
1930s. Nevertheless, the period from the later nineteenth century to the 1930s
does have a common denominator if compared with the post–World War II
period. Critics such as Fredric Jameson and Perry Anderson, among others,
have emphasized that the rise of modernism in Russia, Germany, France,
and Italy depended on the continued presence of an ancien régime with its
old aristocratic elites; the presence of a highly formalized academicism in
the organized art world that just begged to be opposed by the various seces-
sions; the rise of new technologies such as photography, film, and radio; and
finally the proximity of aesthetic to political revolution, with its most intense
phase right after the October Revolution. In those decades the metropolis was
still an island of modernization in national cultures dominated by traditional
country or small-town life. In other words, European modernism arrived at
the threshold of a not yet fully modernized world in which old and new were
violently knocked against each other, striking the sparks of that astounding
eruption of creativity that came to be known only much later as “modernism.”
If transition is the enabling condition for the rise of modernism in Europe,
two observations follow: transition into a more modernized world also char-

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acterized, however differently, life in the colonies, and it became a central

trope energizing and organizing processes of postcoloniality after World
War II. Post-1945 modernism in the North Atlantic culture of the Cold War,
however, operated in fully modernized consumer societies, where it lost much
of its earlier bite. Indeed, modernism as an adversary culture (Lionel Trilling)
cannot be discussed without introducing the concept of alternative moderni-
ties to which the multiple modernisms and their different trajectories remain
tied in complex mediated ways.

In the decades after the apex of the North American postmodernism eupho-
ria in the mid-1980s a new debate about modernity has resurfaced. What once
seemed to have been relegated to the dustbin of scholarly archives has returned
with a vengeance. Far from condemning this return (as does Jameson) as a
regression, I see it as a breath of fresh air blowing through the human and
social sciences, dispelling the fog of the postmodern.1 For too many years, a
one-dimensional postmodern and postcolonial understanding of enlightened
modernity as original sin of the West has held sway. To get beyond such reduc-
tive views does not mean that we return to some triumphalism of moderniza-
tion. Given the problematic aspect of “modernity” as a “North Atlantic uni-
versal,” as Michel-Rolph Trouillot has called it, we must also realize that the
discursive return of modernity captures something in the dialectics of glo-
balization, whose aporetic mix of destruction and creation, so reminiscent of
modernity in the classical age of empire, has become ever more palpable in
recent years.2
Then and now, modernity is never one. The new narrative of alterna-
tive modernities in postcolonial studies and anthropology makes us revisit
varieties of modernism formerly excluded from the Euro-American canon as
derivative and imitative, and therefore inauthentic. The shift in perspective is
all the more appropriate as we have come to understand colonialism and
conquest as the very condition of possibility for modernity and for aesthetic
modernism. A case in point is the fascination with primitivism in the visual
arts or the embrace of the premodern and the barbaric, the mythic and the
archaic in such modernist writers as Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger, T. S.
Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Georges Bataille. It was in classical modernism that
the modern was first linked to the nonmodern, often in appropriative terms,

1. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2002).

2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Otherwise Modern: Caribbean Lessons from the Savage Slot,”
in Critically Modern, ed. B. M. Knauft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 220.

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but never without criticizing bourgeois civilization and its ideology of prog-
ress. Clearly, the new interest in twentieth-century spaces of modernity out-
side the northern transatlantic must be part of the debate about globalization,
especially if one is interested in the genealogy of the global, which did not
spring from the head of post–Cold War capitalism.
The issue in this new critical debate about modernity is no longer its
opposition to postmodernity, even though this inevitably reductive binary
underlies much of the still-popular antimodernity thinking that emerged from
poststructuralism and from a narrowly understood postcolonial approach.3
The issue is rather what Arjun Appadurai has identified as “modernity at
large” and what others have described as alternative modernities.4 As Dilip
Gaonkar writes: “It [modernity] has arrived not suddenly but slowly, bit by
bit, over the longue durée—awakened by contact; transported through com-
merce; administered by empires, bearing colonial inscriptions; propelled by
nationalism; and now increasingly steered by global media, migration, and
capital.”5 Indeed, the critical focus on alternative modernities with their deep
histories and local contingencies now seems to offer a better approach than
the imposed notion, say, of postmodernism in Asia or in Latin America. It
also permits us to critique current globalization theories in the social sci-
ences, which in their reductive modeling and lack of historical depth often
do little more than recycle the earlier U.S.-generated modernization theory
of the Cold War years. Even if the West remains a power broker and “clear-
inghouse” of worldwide modernities, as Gaonkar puts it, it does not offer the
sole model of cultural development, as both cyberutopians and the dystopian
McDonaldization theorists seem to believe. Especially since the tale of the two
modernities, the good and the bad, now appears to be very place- and time-
specific. The standard account of aesthetic modernism and avant-gardism in
Europe as a progressive and adversary culture directed against the social and
economic modernity of bourgeois society may not easily apply outside Europe.
It is enough to think about “Shanghai modern” in the 1930s as the space of

3. For a more sophisticated historical and theoretical account of the issue of modernity see
Timothy Mitchell, ed., Questions of Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2000). For a critique of reductive versions of postcolonialism see Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Post-
colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1999).
4. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
5. Dilip Gaonkar, “Alternative Modernities,” Public Culture 11 (1999): 1.

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emergence of Chinese communism,6 or about the explosion of modernism in

Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s and its instrumentalization for a national proto-
fascist project, to know that the European model of a strong opposition between
socioeconomic modernity and aesthetic modernism did not translate seam-
lessly into other contexts.

Attention to the broader geographies of modernism has emerged only after

the collapse of socialism and the failure of decolonization. Clearly, the ques-
tions raised in postcolonial studies and cultural history are pertinent for this
inquiry. The debate about globalization offers a prism for assessing alterna-
tive modernisms and their complex embeddedness in colonial and postcolo-
nial forms of cultural and social modernization. But globalization poses prac-
tical and theoretical challenges to modernism studies that still have not been
fully acknowledged. More significant, it also represents a major challenge to
various traditional and current notions of culture itself.
So far processes of globalization as distinct from historically compa-
rable, earlier phenomena such as internationalization or empire building and
colonization have been studied primarily in terms of economics (financial
markets, trade, transnational corporations), information technology (televi-
sion, computers, the Internet), and politics (civil society, the waning of the
nation-state, the rise of nongovernmental organizations). The cultural dimen-
sions of globalization and their relation to the whole history of modernity
remain poorly understood, often for the simple reason that “real” or “authen-
tic” culture (especially if framed in an anthropological or post-Herderian con-
text) is seen as that which is subjectively shared by a given community and
therefore local, whereas only economic processes and technological change
are perceived as universal and global. In this account the local opposes the
global as authentic cultural tradition, whereas the global functions as “prog-
ress,” that is, as a force of alienation, domination, and dissolution. The global-
local binary, however, is as homogenizing as the alleged cultural homogeniza-
tion of the global it opposes. It lags behind the transnational understanding of
modern cultural practices that was already achieved by segments of the mod-
ern movement. Rather than offer a new perspective on contemporary culture,
it merely recycles an older sociological model for analyzing modernity (tradi-
tion or indigenous culture vs. modernity, Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft, etc.)

6. See Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China,
1930–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

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without any reflection on how modernizing and globalizing processes of the

past century have made that nineteenth-century model obsolete.
My argument here is that much modernism research in the Western
academy and in the museum is still bound by the local. Despite the cele-
brated internationalism of the modern, we still experience obstacles in the
very structures of academic disciplines, their compartmentalization in uni-
versity departments of national literatures, and their inherent unequal power
relations in acknowledging what I call modernism at large, namely, the cross-
national cultural forms that emerge from the negotiation of the modern with
the indigenous, the colonial, and the postcolonial in the “non-Western” world.7
Sure, the canon has been expanded in recent years, for instance, by including
such phenomena as the Brazilian anthropophagy avant-garde or Caribbean
modernism, but processes of translation and transnational migrations and their
effects remain insufficiently theorized and are studied mostly within local
Thus we lack a workable model of comparative studies able to go beyond
the traditional approaches that still take national cultures as the units to be
compared and rarely pay attention to the uneven flows of translation, transmis-
sion, and appropriation. Trouillot has argued that modernity is structurally
plural: “It requires an alterity, a referent outside of itself—a pre- or nonmodern
in relation to which the modern takes its full meaning.”8 Trouillot goes on to
posit two intertwined yet distinct geographies: one of imagination and one of
management, both of which produced what he calls “the otherwise modern.”
Timothy Mitchell in turn has argued that Western modernity has always seen
itself as a stage both of history and for historiography against the temporally
and geographically nonmodern.9 Trouillot’s structural and Mitchell’s histori-
cal arguments apply with equal force to modernism. The modernisms of the
geographically “nonmodern” have been neglected, except of course when
the “nonmodern” of, say, traditional or “primitive” African sculpture was sim-

7. The phrasing modernism at large owes an obvious debt to Appadurai (see n. 4). Other pos-
sible terms for the phenomenon are alternative modernisms and multiple modernisms. The former
term still suggests, at least implicitly, a hierarchy of a real or original modernism and its alterna-
tives, whereas the latter term strikes me as too pluralistic. It also lacks the sense of an expanded
geography of modernism that modernism at large conveys. On the issue of hybridity as I use it here
in relation to “non-Western” modernisms see Néstor García Canclini, Culturas híbridas: Estrate-
gias para entrar y salir de la modernidad (Mexico: Grijalbo, 1989); Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for
Entering and Leaving Modernity, trans. Christopher L. Chippari and Silvia L. López (Minneapo-
lis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
8. Trouillot, “Otherwise Modern,” 222.
9. Mitchell, Questions of Modernity, 1–34.

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ply appropriated to prove the universality of the modern as form. The Troca-
déro in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York are the symptom-
atic and much-discussed sites of this appropriation.10 We know much less about
the geography of imagination in the non-Western world and its transforma-
tive negotiation with the modern of the metropolis.

The debate about modernity and modernism is closely linked to the recently
much-discussed notion of world literature.11 As if on automatic pilot, such dis-
cussions quickly turn to the promised land of Weltliteratur, a notion Goethe
first articulated in 1827 in a conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann. I
think that we should resist such a facile appropriation of Goethe, though not
simply on the basis of the backshadowing argument that Goethe suffered
from Eurocentrism. The Goethean concept of Weltliteratur, with its shades
of eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism, was itself made possible by a major
national project of translation and appropriation within German Romanti-
cism.12 Paradoxically, the Romantic project of appropriation and translation
into German gave rise to Goethe’s notion of Weltliteratur, which at the same
time aimed to counter the increasing nationalization of literature and culture
that was to dominate the nineteenth century and has since then become insti-
tutionally ossified. In that post-Romantic age of nation building, Goethe’s pro-
posal was obviously less than successful. It remains doubtful whether our now
popular commitment to a global literature as somehow postnational will fare
any better.
Nevertheless, the concept of Weltliteratur has remained a touchstone for
discussions especially of comparative literature, even though until recently
this discipline has remained safely centered on a triad of European languages
and literatures (French, English, German), with a few masters from other
national contexts thrown into the mix. More important than this geographic
limitation, which could after all be corrected, is a theoretical one. To celebrate

10. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibit “Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art triggered
a substantive critical debate on this issue that was then carried further at the occasion of the Centre
George Pompidou’s 1989 exhibit Les magiciens de la terre. See the discussion published in Third
Text, especially Rasheed Araeen, “Our Bauhaus, Others’ Mudhouse,” Third Text 6 (1989): 3–14.
11. See the two special issues “Globalizing Literary Studies,” PMLA 116, no. 1 (2001), and “Lit-
erature at Large,” PMLA 119, no. 1 (2004). See also Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Litera-
ture,” New Left Review, n.s., 1 (2000): 54–68; Richard Maxwell, Joshua Scodel, and Katie Trumpener,
“Editors’ Preface,” in “Toward World Literature,” special issue, Modern Philology 100, no. 4 (2003):
505–11; and Christopher Prendergast, ed., Debating World Literature (London: Verso, 2004).
12. See Andreas Huyssen, Die frühromantische Konzeption von Übersetzung und Aneignung:
Studien zur frühromantischen Utopie einer deutschen Weltliteratur (Zürich: Atlantis, 1969).

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global literature today as a new and expanded form of Goethe’s Weltliteratur

ignores the fact that literature as a medium of cultural production no longer
occupies the privileged place it held in Goethe’s age.
Today we must therefore ask the question in a different key, not least
because of developments in modernism itself such as the rise of new media
and the expansion of the high-cultural notion of “literariness” to the more-
encompassing notion of textuality. What Adorno in the late essay “Kunst und
die Künste” (“Art and the Arts”) has described as the large-scale Verfran-
sungsprozess, the fraying of the specificity of artistic media and their multi-
ple crossover effects, has forever changed the nature and function of litera-
ture itself.13 Since literature as a medium no longer occupies center stage in
the formation of national cultures, we may want to reframe Goethe’s ques-
tion by asking: can there be something like a Weltkultur, a world culture or a
global culture, and if so, how does one conceptualize it and do justice to its
local, national, and ever more transnational variants?
Clearly, the local will always inflect the global in cultural matters, and
nothing was further from Goethe’s mind than the kind of homogenized world
literature that Erich Auerbach feared in an influential essay of 1952, first trans-
lated into English by Edward W. Said and Maire Janus in the late 1960s.14 It
is easy to agree that there can be no purely global culture totally separate
from local traditions. Nor can there be any longer a purely local culture insu-
lated from the effects of the global. The national metropolis of a hundred and
more years ago was already a place for such transnational encounters and
their spectacular mise-en-scène in universal expositions and world’s fairs.
But which cultural forms can be labeled global today; how are they deter-
mined by market forces, by translation practices, and by the media; and how
do they circulate nationally and transnationally? What, if anything, was global
about modernism? Is it possible to imagine cultural practices that are some-
how global but don’t circulate globally? Is Ronald Robertson’s notion of the
“glocal” more than a useful cliché that points to an obvious intermingling
between the global and the local?15 It strikes me that the current debate pays
far too little attention to the multiple layers and hierarchies within transna-

13. Theodor W. Adorno, “Kunst und die Künste,” in Ohne Leitbild: Parva Aesthetica (Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp, 1967), 159.
14. Erich Auerbach, “Philologie und Weltliteratur,” in Weltliteratur: Festgabe für Fritz Strich
zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Walter Muschg and Emil Staiger (Bern: Franke, 1952), 39–50; “Philology
and Weltliteratur,” trans. Edward W. Said and Maire Janus, Centennial Review 13 (1969): 1–17.
15. Ronald Robertson, “Globalization or Glocalization?” Journal of International Communi-
cation 1 (1994): 33–52.

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tional cultural exchange. Is not global a far too global term to capture cultural
intermingling, appropriations, and reciprocal mimicry and citation? Espe-
cially if we consider that global literature is all too often taken primarily as
literature written in English and for a “world market.” This is precisely where
a focus on alternative modernisms could add some historical depth and theo-
retical rigor to the discussion.

Clearly, globalization provides the horizon for new research on comparative

modernisms today, but it also poses formidable methodological and practical
problems. The task is to make the transition from the often very bland consid-
erations of the global that see it either as a threatening specter or as a benefi-
cent invisible hand, to the study of cultural genealogies of language, medium,
and image as they undergo transformations under the pressures of transna-
tional processes and exchanges. In this context, the focus on modernist geog-
raphies suggests a more abstract image of spatial organization to me, very dif-
ferent from the more literal understanding but crucial for my argument about
subliminal links between modernism and cultural globalization today.
The cultural space that modernism inhabited was divided into high and
low, into elite culture and an increasingly commercialized mass culture. Mod-
ernism was by and large the attempt to turn the traditional European postulate
of high culture against tradition itself and to create a radically new high culture
that opened up utopian horizons of social and political change. Much work has
been done since the 1980s on how modernist and avant-garde artists appropri-
ated forms and contents of popular and mass culture, reworking them for their
own purposes. By the 1920s and the avant-garde’s embrace of new media and
technology, there were even utopias of an alternative kind of mass culture that
would shun the commercialization of capitalism (Brecht, Benjamin, Tretyakov)
and usher in a new world. Given the fluidity of politics and imaginaries of the
future before and after the Great War, modernist utopias could emerge on the
right, the left, and in the liberal middle. But the hierarchical division between
high and low remained, as did social divisions.
I argue that this model of high and low, which for rather parochial rea-
sons has been prematurely put to rest by U.S. postmodernism and cultural
studies, can still serve as a paradigm to analyze alternative modernisms and
globalizing cultures. High-low should here be seen as shorthand for a much
more complex set of relations involving palimpsests of times and spaces that
are anything but binary. This model, once freed from its earlier parochial-
ism, stemming from its embeddedness in U.S.-European constellations, may
well serve as a template for looking comparatively at phenomena of cultural

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globalization, including that earlier phase of non-European modernisms in

Asia, Latin America, or Africa. For too long, such non-Western modernisms
have either been ignored in the West as epistemologically impossible, since
only the West was considered advanced enough to generate authentic modern-
ism, or were dismissed both in the metropolis and in the periphery as lamen-
table mimicry and contamination of a more genuine local culture. Such “sanc-
tioned ignorance,” as Gayatri Spivak once called it in another context, is no
longer acceptable.
The high-low distinction is not only germane to a certain post-1945
codification of modernism. It also extends deeply into the realm of tradition
and its modernized transmissions in the present. At the risk of overstepping
the boundaries of my knowledge, I suggest a few examples. If you think of the
political role that such classical Brahmin epics as the Mahabharatha and
the Ramayana play in contemporary India, epics written in Sanskrit ages
ago but endlessly displayed on television and circulated in many languages
in South Asian oral culture today; or if you think of the renewed struggle in
China over Confucianism, which in Mao’s times was relegated to the margin
because it belonged to feudal culture; or if you consider the recent turn to tra-
ditional popular culture in China as a defense against the influx of Western
mass culture, a debate heavily invested with the politics of the authentically
local versus a superimposed foreign influence; or if you consider the complex
mix of Spanish and Portuguese baroque culture both with indigenous Indian,
African, and other European immigrant traditions in several Latin Ameri-
can countries, then it immediately becomes clear that the high-low relation-
ship takes very different forms at different historical times and that it can be
inflected with radically different politics.
It is not just that the borders between high and low have begun to blur
significantly after high modernism in the West (bringing some critics to mis-
read the Latin American boom novel as a kind of postmodernism avant la
lettre),16 but that a strong and stable literary high culture cannot be assumed
even to have existed everywhere on the model of European nation-states such
as France, England, or Germany. And where an indigenous high culture did
exist as in India, Japan, or China, it will inevitably have had a different rela-
tionship to power and to the state both in precolonial and in colonial times.
Such different pasts have shaped how specific cultures have negotiated the

16. Idelber Avelar, The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of
Mourning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); Jean Franco, The Decline and Fall of the
Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

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impact of modernization since the nineteenth century and globalization’s

subsequent spread of media, communication technologies, and consumerism.
Especially in the Caribbean and in Latin America, the legacies of imported
and indigenous modernisms, what I call “modernisms at large,” are very much
part of such negotiations. Even while media and consumerism may spread
everywhere in the world, though with different intensities and widely diver-
gent access, the imaginaries they produce are nowhere near as homogeneous
as a new kind of global Kulturkritik laments.
Comparatists, however, do have a problem. At a time when modernism
studies are asked to cover ever more territory both geographically and his-
torically, thus overloading any individual critic’s circuits, the danger is that
the discipline will lose its coherence as a field of investigation, get bogged
down in ever more local case studies, or become superficial, neglecting the
need to maintain a methodological and theoretical project. The U.S. model
of cultural studies in particular—in its reductive focus on thematics and cul-
tural ethnographies, its privileging of consumption over production, its lack
of historical depth and knowledge of languages, its abandonment of aesthetic
and formal issues coupled with its unquestioned privileging of popular and
mass culture—is not an adequate model to face the new challenges.17
A major task then is to create sets of conceptual parameters for such
comparisons to give some coherence to a field of study in danger of becoming
either too amorphous or remaining simply too parochial. My tentative reflec-
tions are meant to move us into that crucial cultural space that feeds off the
local, the national, and the global and that encompasses all three as the space
of modernity and its imaginative geography.

The model of high versus low, known primarily from the modernism debates,
can indeed be productively rethought and related to cultural developments in
“peripheral,” postcolonial, or postcommunist societies. To the extent that it
captures aspects of cultural hierarchies and social class, race and religion,
gender relations and codifications of sexuality, colonial cultural transfers, the
relation between cultural tradition and modernity, the role of memory and
the past in the contemporary world, and the relation of print media to visual
mass media, it can be made productive for the comparative analyses of cul-
tural globalization today as well as for a new understanding of earlier and

17. For a succinct critique of American cultural studies see Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland,
eds., Commodify Your Dissent: The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age (New York: Nor-
ton, 1997).

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other roads taken within modernity. In other words, the discourse about alter-
native modernities in India or in Latin America can profitably be expanded to
include the assessment of alternative developments in the relations and cross-
currents between indigenous popular culture, minority cultures, high culture
(both traditional and modern), and mass-mediated culture. Historically alter-
native modernities have existed all along, and their trajectories continue into
the age of globalization.18
But why focus on this issue at all, one might ask? First, the reinscrip-
tion of the high-low problematic in all its complex and multilayered dimen-
sions into the discussions of cultural modernity in transnational contexts and
across borders can counteract the widespread notion that the culture of the
East or the West, Islam or Christianity, the United States or Latin America is
as unitary as writers such as Alan Bloom, Benjamin Barber, and Samuel Hunt-
ington have suggested. In other words, it can counteract the bad heritage
from cultural anthropology and a Spenglerian kind of American-style Kultur-
kritik. It can problematize the all-too-evident need to create an inside-outside
myth to maintain a Feindbild (enemy image), an absolute other, which can be
read itself as a heritage of the Cold War in current theories about clashing
civilizations. Second, it can also counteract and complicate the equally limited
argument that only local culture or culture as local is good, authentic, and
resistant, whereas global cultural forms must be condemned as manifesta-
tions of cultural imperialism, that is, Americanization.
Every culture, as we know from Pierre Bourdieu’s work, has its hier-
archies and social stratifications, and these differ greatly according to local
circumstances and histories. Unpacking such temporal and spatial differentia-
tions might be a good way to arrive at new kinds of comparisons that would
go beyond the clichés of colonial versus postcolonial, modern versus postmod-
ern, Western versus Eastern, center versus periphery, global versus local, the
West versus the rest. To de-Westernize notions such as modernity and modern-
ism, we need a lot more theoretically informed descriptive work about mod-
ernisms at large, their interaction or noninteraction with Western modern-
isms, their relationship to different forms of colonialism (different in Latin
America from South Asia and again from Africa), their codings of the role of
art and culture in relation to state and nationhood. In the end, it may well turn
out that despite the best of intentions, such de-Westernization of modernism
and modernity will remain limited because of the Western genealogy of the

18. By now there is a vast literature on “alternative modernities.” Apart from the still-challenging
earlier work by Appadurai, see the special issue “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000),
esp. the essays by Stanley J. Tambiah and S. N. Eisenstadt; see also Knauft, Critically Modern.

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concepts themselves.19 This tension is to be acknowledged until the day when

such a project may not seem as pertinent as it does now.
But for me there are two other reasons to rethink the high-low relation-
ship today. First, it points us back to the left modernism debates of the 1930s
(Brecht, Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Adorno) and their never-abandoned con-
cern with issues of aesthetic value and aesthetic perception in relation to
politics, history, and experience.20 Revisiting the high-low problematic in
a transnational context might serve us to reinscribe the issue of aesthetic
value and form into the contemporary debate. Only then can we rethink the
historically altered relationship between the aesthetic and the political for
our age in ways that must surely go beyond the debates of the 1930s, but also
beyond the postmodernism and postcolonialism debates of the 1980s and
1990s. Second, the modernism debate of the 1930s, conducted primarily in
the German exile journal Das Wort, published in Moscow amid some of the
worst Stalinist repression, was also a complex debate about realism, not in
opposition to modernism but within it. Remembering that debate could be
quite salutory today when “reality” is either dissolved in what Bruno Latour
calls the “fairy position” (everything is projection and construction, also
known as spin) or hardened into positivist fact with no space left for the con-
stitutive tension between reality and imagination.21 In addition, two brief
points: (1) In light of the fact that an aesthetic dimension shapes not just the
high arts but also the products of consumer culture in terms of design, adver-
tising, and the mobilization of affect and desire, it is retrograde to claim in
left populist fashion that any concern with aesthetic form is inherently elit-
ist. (2) If those earlier debates were primarily organized around a linear tem-
poral axis (modernism vs. realism, later postmodernism vs. modernism) and
focused on media of high culture such as literature and painting, the condi-
tion of globality requires consideration of a strong geographic and spatial
dimension, a recognition of the intertwinings of the temporal with the spatial
and their aesthetic effects. We might want to explore further what Appadurai
has usefully described as the “production of locality” and “locality as pro-

19. For thoughtful discussions of the inherent dangers in the recent reemergence of modernity
as a central category in social and cultural theory see the essays by Bruce M. Knauft, Donald L.
Donham, John D. Kelly, and Jonathan Friedman in Knauft, Critically Modern. For a rather dismis-
sive approach see Jameson, A Singular Modernity. For further discussion of Jameson see Andreas
Huyssen, “Memories of Modernism—Archeology of the Future,” Harvard Design Magazine,
Spring 2004, 90–95.
20. For collections of the major texts see Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London:
Verso, 1977), and, much more extensively, Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, ed., Die Expressionismusdebatte:
Materialien zu einer marxistischen Realismuskonzeption (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).
21. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 227.

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202 Geographies of Modernism

ducing” as key ingredients of modernity at large. Here, the analysis of city

cultures and the aesthetic perceptions and social uses of space provide an excit-
ing field for new investigations. The high-low distinction itself, in its spatial
metaphoricity, can be linked quite pragmatically to the different urban spaces
of cultural production and consumption such as the street, the neighborhood,
the museum, the concert hall and the opera house, the tourist site and the
shopping mall.
My main point, however, is that reconsidering high-low inevitably brings
back the issue of aesthetics and form, which cultural studies in the United
States (as opposed to cultural studies in Brazil or Argentina) has all but aban-
doned in its move against the alleged elitism of aesthetics.22 Of course, the
attack on aesthetics goes hand in hand with an attack on modernism, but both
attacks are no longer helpful in assessing modernism retrospectively. The
politically legitimate attack on an earlier social-cultural elitism embodied in
the figure of the aesthetic connoisseur ignores that the insistence on aesthetic
value and the complexities of representation in cultural production can today
easily be uncoupled from a socially coded elitism in the sense of Bourdieu’s
“distinction.”23 For a better understanding of how our much-expanded cultural
markets function under conditions of globalization, a critical understanding of
the aesthetic dimension of all image, music, and language production remains
absolutely crucial. The struggle against the aesthetic as a code word for Euro-
pean modernism and elitism has simply become obsolete.

How then do we get out of this double dead end of “global literature” and
of a self-limiting cultural studies? In a very preliminary way, I suggest the

1. We abandon the high-low distinction in its traditional configuration that

radically opposes serious literature and art to the mass media and popular
culture, and replace this strictly hierarchical or vertical value relation with a
primarily lateral or horizontal configuration, appropriate to the cultural real-
ities of our time. This would deflate the notion of high and acknowledge that
it is as much subject to market pressures as low. Even within European mod-

22. It must be noted that the anti-aesthetic habitus of U.S.-style cultural studies is quite different
from the earlier anti-aesthetic proposed by Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-
modern Culture (Port Townsend, WA: Bay, 1983), even though both anti-aesthetics took aim at the
canon of high modernism.
23. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1984).

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ernism the boundaries were always more fluid than post–World War II codi-
fications have led us to believe. Certainly today, we do not face a totalitarian
culture industry and its autonomous high other, as suggested in the writings
of Adorno or Clement Greenberg in the age of national socialism and Stalin-
ism, but a differentiated mass and niche marketing for all kinds of cultural
consumption at diverging levels of demand, expectation, and complexity.
2. The issue of hierarchy, however, must not disappear entirely from analysis.
Hierarchical value relations remain inscribed into all cultural practices, but
they operate more subtly depending on stratifications of production and
reception, of genres, and of media. Cultural hierarchy is a key issue for
alternative modernisms, which are inevitably shaped by the power relations
between the metropolis and the periphery. In the colonial world, the influx
of Western modernism did not automatically gain the status of high in com-
parison with local classical traditions (e.g., India in the postliberation
period), and Western mass culture is often resisted not because it is “low”
but because it is Western (e.g., China today). Western hierarchies are thus
multiply refracted and transformed by local hierarchies of value. It remains
to be analyzed how such refractions affected the various alternative mod-
ernisms, where they found fertile ground as in Latin America and where
they were resisted either by nativism or by official cultural policies as in the
Soviet Union.
3. We should raise the issue of medium specificity (oral-aural, written, visual)
in all its historical, technical, and theoretical complexity rather than con-
tinue to rely on the intellectually lazy notion of media culture per se as low.
As if print, the paramount support system of modern literary culture, was
not a medium itself. While print of course exists worldwide, levels of literacy
vary, and not all cultures privilege print to the same degree. For example, in
a country like Brazil, where musical and visual traditions of the popular
realm shape culture more than what Angel Rama has called “the lettered
city,” such a focus on mediality would be more pertinent than the European
high-low distinction itself.24 The notion of medium is especially pertinent to
a discussion of alternative modernisms, since it would also allow us to go
beyond language and image and include nonverbal media such as architec-
ture and built urban space. Architecture and urban planning, after all, have
been among the main transmitters of modernism in the non-Western world.
4. We should reintroduce issues of aesthetic quality and form into our analysis
of any and all cultural practices and products. Here the question of criteria

24. Angel Rama, The Lettered City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

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is obviously key: rather than privilege the radically new in Western avant-
gardist fashion, we may want to focus on the complexity of repetition and
rewriting, bricolage and translation, thus expanding our understanding of
innovation. The focus might then be on intertextuality, creative mimicry,
the power of a text to question ingrained habits through visual or narrative
strategies, the ability to transform media usage, and so on. With this sug-
gestion, I argue for an artistic practice in the Brechtian sense, but it is a
version of modernism with a difference: politically more modest and aes-
thetically more open to past practices than the utopian rhetoric of the his-
torical avant-garde allowed for. Many of the writers usually described as
representing contemporary global literature can be read in this light.
5. We should abandon the notion that a successful attack on elite culture can
play a major role in a political and social transformation. This was the sig-
nature of European avant-gardism in its heroic age, and it still lingers in
certain academic-populist outposts in the United States. Instead, we should
pay close attention to how cultural practices and products are linked to the
discourses of the political and the social in specific local and national con-
stellations as they develop in transnational exchange. The politics of alter-
native modernisms are deeply embedded in colonial and postcolonial con-
texts, in which notions such as elite, tradition, popularity assume codings
quite different from those in the northern transatlantic then or now.
Whatever geography of modernism we analyze, we must carefully
explore to what extent a given culture is organized according to habitus and
social distinction, as Bourdieu has called it. Whatever their undeniable ben-
efits, modern consumer societies seem to block the imagination of alterna-
tive futures. When everything becomes available (though not always acces-
sible) to the consumer’s choice, it becomes that much harder to find a place
for an effective political critique. The critique of consumption per se, apart
from being disingenuous, is no substitute for political vision. Thus we may
also want to ask whether the once plausible equation of the cultural with the
political has not led to a politically disabling culturalism.
6. To get beyond the ingrown parochialism of American cultural studies and
the universalizing gesture of the American global, we must engage in seri-
ous transnational work in many different languages and on different ter-
rains. Transnational phenomena rarely if ever encompass the whole globe.
The traveling and distribution of cultural products is always specific and
particular, never homogeneously global. To study such transnational
exchanges, we require new forms of practical cooperation with scholars
worldwide. Only then can an intensified focus on the promises and vicissi-
tudes of translation bear results. At stake is the translation not just of lan-

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guage but of habit, nonverbal forms of expression, thought patterns, histori-

cally determined disciplinary formations, and the like. Indeed, translation
in its broadest linguistic and historical sense poses the major challenge to
any reassessment of the geographies of modernism in a global sense.
7. Methodologically, comparatists may wish to combine a nonreductive cul-
tural studies with the disciplines of cultural and political history (includ-
ing a sociological and economic dimension), the new cultural anthropol-
ogy, and the close reading traditions of literary and art historical criticism.
Apart from tracing particular cultural phenomena (a novel, a film, an
exhibit, pop music, advertising strategies) in their transnational travels, a
sustained focus on the operations and functions of public cultures and the
changing role of critique within them will be key. Such a focus will inevi-
tably lead to political questions involving human rights and civil society,
imagined communities and the role of religion, gender and subalternity,
economic asymmetries and the emerging debate about transnational urban
imaginaries as sites of self-understanding in a globalizing world.

These seven suggestions depend of course on a recognition of how the

present stage of globalization is both continuous with and yet distinct from
that earlier modernity that produced the culture of modernism. It is only
through such carefully drawn distinctions that we will be able to develop new
readings of modernism as a transnational and incipiently global, rather than
only international, phenomenon. The word international (apart from its old
Marxist sense) refers to the relations between states or cultures as fixed enti-
ties, whereas transnational points to the dynamic processes of cultural min-
gling and migration. The global would then be made up of a growing number
of such transnational processes, which, however, will never flow together into
some homogeneous totality.

Thinking back to the high-low problematic today points to the distance we

have traveled since the heady days of postmodernism and the emergence of
new forms of cultural studies. As I have argued, it also reveals the underly-
ing American parochialism of the postmodernism craze. Postmodernism
thought of itself as global, but was perhaps nothing more than the belated
attempt to assert a U.S. international against the model of the European
international style of high modernism of the interwar period.25 Yet the post-
modern decades in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s did generate

25. See Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

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a new relationship between high culture and mass-media culture that reso-
nates, however differently, in other cultures of the world.
In a global context, then, the question about the relationship among high
culture (both traditional or indigenous and modern), indigenous and national
popular culture, minority or subaltern cultures, and transnational mass-media
culture may still provide the impetus for a new kind of comparative work
that would draw our attention to the very different forms such constellations
take, say, in India or China as compared with Latin America or Eastern Europe.
A number of interesting theoretical questions emerge in this context. We may
ask, for instance, whether and how postcolonial theory applies unproblemati-
cally to Latin American countries, whose colonial and postcolonial history
is significantly different from that of India or African countries;26 whether the
notion of the subaltern can be transferred unproblematically and without medi-
ations from one geographic context to another; whether notions of hybridity
and diaspora—the latest master signifiers, it seems—are sufficiently rigorous
to describe the complex racial, ethnic, and linguistic mixings in different parts
of the world today. Of course, postmodern practices in literature and the arts
have rejected the choice between high-low all along, producing all kinds of
fascinating hybridizations of high and low that seemed to open up new hori-
zons for aesthetic experimentation. But the celebration of a postmodern hybrid-
ity of high and low may itself have lost its once critical edge. Cultural produc-
tion today crosses the imaginary spatial borders between high and low rather
easily. It has also become transnational in new geographic ways, especially
in the music industry,27 but also in certain sectors of film and television (e.g.,
Indian cinema in Africa, the export of Brazilian telenovelas).
Hybridization of whatever kind now happens increasingly under the
sign of the market. But markets, even elite niche markets, as Néstor Canclini
has pointed out in his recent book La globalización imaginada (The Imag-
ined Globalization), tend to domesticate and to equalize the rough and inno-
vative edges of cultural production.28 They will go for the successful formula
rather than encourage the not-yet-known or experimental modes of aesthetic
expression. Most of high culture is as much subject to market forces as any
mass-mediated product. Big mergers in the publishing industry shrink the

26. Here it might be useful to distinguish historically and theoretically between very different
notions of the hybrid, say, between Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge,
1994), and the earlier work by Canclini, Culturas híbridas.
27. See Veit Erlmann, Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the
West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
28. Néstor García Canclini, La globalización imaginada (Buenos Aires: Paidos, 1999).

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breathing space for ambitious writing. The celebration of global English is

no solution. Rather, it impoverishes the linguistic richness of our heritage.
Literature itself, as we once knew it, becomes ever more an untimely enter-
prise. But this may also be literature’s chance. For we need a space of complex
and imaginative writing that can reorient us in the world. We need to ask
whether the market can secure new traditions, new forms of transnational
communications and connectivities. But we would abandon our role as critical
intellectuals if we were prematurely to exclude from such considerations the
question of the complex relations between aesthetic value and political effect,
which is fundamentally posed by the traditions of modernism and needs to
be rescued for contemporary analyses of all culture under the spell of global-
ization. The legacies of modernism at large still have a lot to teach us as we
are trying to understand the challenges of cultural globalization. Kafka once
said the book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.29 The effect of
Kafka’s axe resembles Robert Musil’s Möglichkeitssinn, the sense of possi-
bility, invoked to face the future.30 As we ponder the potentialities of global-
ization, the heritage of modernisms at large and their inherent cosmopolitan-
ism can be mobilized to question the economic and religious fundamentalisms
currently engulfing the world. Even as we recognize that modernism was gen-
erated by an earlier North Atlantic phase of modernity, the cultural, economic,
and political asymmetries prevalent then did not preclude creative exchange
and reciprocal recognition. An expanded notion of the geographies of mod-
ernism can help us understand cultural globalization in our time.

29. Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors (New York: Schocken, 1977), 14.
30. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities (New York: Vintage, 1995), 10.

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