Marshall Berman: All That is Solid Melts Into Air

126985Marshall Berman ([1982] 1999)

I loved this book, loved Marshall Berman and his provocations on how capitalism and literature and our strivings in the world are intertwined, loved how a new dialectic is brought into Marxist thought and this is tied into our dreams for the future and our visions for a full life, loved that its is grounded in the pain, and yet excitement and vision too, of capitalist destruction. Entirely dialectical, restless, searching, wary of solutions and ‘end stages’ and static utopias. It is also entirely based on the voices of white men, frustrating, especially in the chapter on under-development. At the same time it manages to capture, I think, what is both great and what is terrifying about capitalism and its visions, and since these emerge from white men I forgive it this focus. I’m glad it’s done. I don’t think it needs to be done again.

It’s based around this wonderful quote from Marx:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, value, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities (13) for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something even as everything melts (13-14).

What I love about Marx, this book, and this aspect of Modernism itself I suppose, is the understanding that the drive to profit through exploitation must be fought, yet that everything is flux and process and overwhelming odds and even so we must ‘be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change the world and make it our own’. I agree in the feeling that this is something that has slipped away from many Marxists and many post-Modernists alike. Berman continues:

Meanwhile, social scientists, embarrassed by critical attacks on their techno-pastoral models, have fled from the task of building a model that might be truer to modern life. Instead, they have split modernity into a series of separate components – industrialization, state-building, urbanization, development of markets, elite formation – and resisted any attempt to integrate them into a whole. This has freed them from extravagant generalizations and vague totalities—but also from thought that might engage their own lives and works and their place in history (33-34)

He critiques the over-totalisation of Foucault as well, its all-encompassing microcosms of power without discussion of struggle against them, and this is where my own frustrations lie. I am all about how we fight I realise:

Foucault’s totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like the turn of the screw (34).

Berman has also convinced me to re-read Goethe. I was at most 17 when I last/first read it, and only remember it wasn’t the camp devil-meets-man-who-sells-his-soul I was expecting, so I am curious to see what I think now. Especially after Berman’s uncovering of so much of the soul of capitalist dreams here, their beauty along with their deadliness. This is such an amazing attempt to really grapple with the fascinations and promises of capitalism, so much a part of its longevity, surely one of its great supports alongside the misery and destitution and destruction it creates.

Faust begins in an epoch whose thought and sensibility are modern in a way that twentieth-century readers can recognize at once, but whose material and social conditions are still medieval; the work ends in the midst of the spiritual and material upheavals of an industrial revolution. It starts in an intellectual’s lonely room, in an abstracted and isolated realm of thought; it ends in the midst of a far-reaching realm of production and exchange, ruled by giant corporate bodies and complex organizations, which Faust’s thought is helping to create, and which are enabling him to create more (39).

This is an interesting insight as well, about how this process took place:

One of the most original and fruitful ideas in Goethe’s Faust is the idea of an affinity between the cultural ideal of self-development and the real social movement toward economic development (40).

There is a freedom for self-development promised by all of these vast and tumultuous changes capitalism was bringing to the landscape. I am sad that the only voice of women in here is via Goethe in the form of Faust’s love Gretchen, but Berman does draw out the tragedy of her situation and that of all women in the period bound up in strong webs of social rules and limits. She is a fairly flat and pathetic construction (I shake my fist at the sky), but embodies this process of modern times that is still happening today. I left home too, didn’t I:

Gretchen’s successors will get the point: where she stayed and died, they will leave and live. In the two centuries between Gretchen’s time and ours, thousands of “little worlds” will be emptied out, transformed into hollow shells, while their young people head for great cities, for open frontiers, for new nations, in search of freedom to think and love and grow…Unwilling or unable to develop along with its children, the closed town will become a ghost town. Its victims’ ghosts will be left with the last laugh (59).

Modernity contains this promise of self-fulfillment, that we can be

…like Faust himself, tätig-frei, free to act, freely active. They have come together to form a new kind of community: a community that thrives not on the repression of free individuality in order to maintain a closed social system, but on free constructive action in common to protect the collective resources that enable every individual to become tätig-frei (66).

Of course, this comes with huge cost. People stand in the way of progress, refuse to sell their land or give up their traditions. Two older people are murdered to pave the way for Faust’s plans, revealing that

It appears that the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development works (68).

An interesting window opened up into why people do bad things, and how that stays within them. It is a personal choice, but also something larger:

But there is another motive for the murder that springs not merely from Faust’s personality, but from a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogenous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace (68).

I love, too, the understanding that it is not just greed or self-interest driving Faust, but vision. This seems to me one of the most important insights Berman gives us, allowing us to understand not just the tragedy of capitalism, but also the tragedy of those initially socialist societies we have known in our times:

If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism (72).

He uses Saint-Simon as an example, with his ‘long-range development projects on an enormous scale’, and states:

It is only in the twentieth century that Faustian development has come into its own. In the capitalist world it has emerged most vividly in the proliferation of “public authorities” and superagencies designed to organize immense construction projects, especially in transportation and energy… (74)

The section ends with this, a sentence that challenges us to think about where we stand ourselves:

Faust’s unfinished construction site is the vibrant but shaky ground on which we must all stake out and build up our lives (86).

Then he turns to Marx in a most innovative and provocative way that I loved as much as his analysis of Goethe. A few choice quotes that turn around traditional understandings of Marxist thought:

We will soon see how the real force and originality of Marx’s “historical materialism” is the light it sheds on modern spiritual life (88).

Marx can shine new light…he can clarify the relationship between modernist culture and the bourgeois economy and society–the world of “modernization”–from which it has sprung (90).

Although Marx identifies himself as a materialist, he is not primarily interested in the things that the bourgeoisie creates. What matters to him is the processes, the powers, the expressions of human life and energy: men working, moving, cultivating, communicating, organizing and reworking nature and themselves–the new and endlessly renewed modes of activity that the bourgeoisie brings into being (93).

I think this is precisely the power of Marx’s thought. And I love where this insight takes us:

Alas to the bourgeois’ embarrassment, they cannot afford to look down the roads they have opened up: the great wide vistas may turn into abysses. They can go on playing their revolutionary role only by denying its full extent and depth. But radical thinkers and workers are free to see where the roads lead, and to take them. If the good life is a life of action, why should the range of human activities be limited to those that are profitable? And why should modern men, who have seen what men’s activity can bring about, passively accept the structure of their society as it is given? Since organized and concerted action can change the world in so many ways, why not organize and work together and fight to change it still more? (94).

Going back to the main quote about melting into air, I think this understanding of what we fight is pivotal, because change is intrinsic to capitalism which benefits from it, but as part of our own interior selves it must also be part of what we build to replace it:

Our lives are controlled by a ruling class with vested interests not merely in change but in crisis and chaos. “Uninterrupted disturbance, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” instead of subverting the society, actually serve to strengthen it. Catastrophes are transformed into lucrative opportunities for redevelopment and renewal; disintegration works as a mobilizing and hence an integrating force (95).

If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid (100).

Thus where Marx sees a stable communist, collective sharing society that needs to be formed, Berman argues that these dynamic forces within us will still work to destabilize any future solidity, and any attempts to hold and control this change will only serve to damage and ossify what we have won.

But the problem is that, given the nihilistic thrust of modern personal and social development, it is not at all clear what political bonds modern men can create. Thus the trouble in Marx’s thought turns out to be a trouble that runs through the whole structure of modern life itself (128).

Another key understanding is the way that capitalism changes and survives through incorporation and subsummation:

When Marx says that other values are “resolved into” exchange value, his point is that bourgeois society does not efface old structures of value but subsumes them. Old modes of honor and dignity do not die; instead, they get incorporated into the market, take on price tags, gain a new life as commodities. Thus, any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible, becomes “valuable”; anything goes if it pays. This is what modern nihilism is all about (111).

This is just a lovely quote that summarises modern society:

How Marx ‘develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them: the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined: a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations (121).

Berman returns to literature specific to Paris as he examines Haussman and Baudelaire, the tensions between celebrating everyday life of the people, making the city better, redeveloping some things out of existence while creating the possibility for growth and positive change. This is from the poet Theodore de Banville’s tribute at Baudelaire’s grave:

He accepted modern man in his entirety, with his weakness, his aspirations and his despair. He had thus been able to give beauty to sights that did not possess beauty in themselves, not by making them romantically picturesque, but by bringing to light the portion of the human soul hidden in them; he had thus revealed the sad and often tragic heart of the modern city. That was why he haunted, and would always haunt, the minds of modern men, and move them when other artists left them cold (132).

On Haussman’s work in Paris:

…it opened up the whole of the city, for the first time in its history, to all its inhabitants. Now, at last, it was possible to move not only within neighborhoods, but through them. Now, after centuries of life as a cluster of isolated cells, Paris was becoming a unified physical and human space (151).

And it is here in Paris we meet the ‘modern man’ (and man it is), see the obsession with crowds, traffic, movement, change:

The archetypal modern man, as we see him here, is a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal. The burgeoning street and boulevard traffic knows no spatial or temporal bounds, spills over into every urban space, imposes its tempo on everybody’s time, transforms the whole modern environment into a “moving chaos.” The chaos here lies not in the movers themselves…but in their interaction, in the totality of their movements in a common space. This makes the boulevard a perfect symbol of capitalism’s inner contradictions: rationality in each capitalistic unit, leading to anarchic irrationality in the social system that brings all these units together (157).

This was so reminiscent of the film Cairo Drive it was a little spooky. This life and art to be found in traffic is such an interesting thing:

…poets will become more deeply and authentically poetic by becoming more like ordinary men. If he throws himself into the moving chaos of everyday life in the modern world — a life of which the new traffic is a primary symbol — he can appropriate this life for art (160).

And I love this way of thinking about streets, how they have changed, how they are defined by us and define us, how they make new ideas of collectivity possible:

For one luminous moment, the multitude of solitudes that make up the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people. “The streets belong to the people”: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own. For a little while the chaotic modernism of solitary brusque moves gives way to an ordered modernism of mass movement (164).

I like thinking about the shifts in how encounters take place in the street:

for most of our century, urban spaces have been systematically designed and organized to ensure that collisions and confrontations will not take place here. The distinctive sign of nineteenth-century urbanism was the boulevard, a medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth-century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of mdoernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism’s name (165).

And I really like what he likes about Baudelaire, though there is more to dislike:

a will to wrestle to the end of his energy with modern life’s complexities and contradictions, to find and create himself in the midst of the anguish and beauty of its moving chaos (170).

It is a desire to live openly with the split and unreconciled character of our lives, and to draw energy from our inner struggles, wherever they may lead us in the end. If we learned through modernism to construct halos around our spaces and ourselves, we can learn from another modernism — one of the oldest but also, we can see now, one of the newest — to lose our halos and find ourselves anew (171).

There’s a whole chapter on St Petersburg, which gave me a long list of Russian authors to read or revisit (you know I loved that), and was interesting but I didn’t feel it compared to the first two chapters. Perhaps because it is looking at those societies who haven’t gone through this upheaval, who are stuck or behind in terms of development. A good thing to do, but he tries to make the same kind of sweeping statements, using Russia to potentially understand the rest of the world which I think is a really bad idea. Really. Bad.I won’t go into vastly different histories of ‘discovery’, colonialism, slavery, genocide, centuries of outside exploitation, the solidifying of structural racism and etc.

That said, I was quite delighted to find a discussion of the impact that Crystal Palace, South London’s own Crystal Palace, had on some key Russian authors (why don’t I remember this from Dostoevsky?) and utopian thought. I’m looking forward to thinking more about that. There was also an amazing word brought from English into Russian:  infiltrazya – Soviet word expressing the fear of the ‘flow of new words and things from other shores’. Awesome.

Anyway, this comes back to its own when it comes back to NY and Marshall Berman’s beloved Bronx, destroyed through these very forces he is working to describe. He wrestles here with what made the destruction of his neighbourhood possible, and I haven’t really read people wrestling with this before though I think it is so vital:

It is easy to dwell endlessly on Moses’ personal power and style. But this emphasis tends to obscure one of the primary sources of his vast authority: his ability to convince a mass public that he was the vehicle of impersonal world-historical forces, the moving spirit of modernity (294).

And this spirit of modernity twisted in odd, and I think fairly terrible ways. Killing one of its sources:

the makers of the post-World War One “modern movement” in architecture and urbanism turned radically against this modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, “We must kill the street.” (317)

Le Corbusier is on my list, but I have read Jane Jacobs, I like what Berman finds of import in her writings:

Much of her intellectual authority springs from her perfect grasp of the structures and processes of everyday life. She makes her readers feel that women know what it is like to live in cities, street by street, day by day, far better than the men who plan and build them.

But our critique is much the same:

It seems to me that beneath her modernist text there is an anti-modernist subtext, a sort of undertow of nostalgia for a family and a neighborhood in which the self could be securely embedded, ein’feste Burg, a solid refuge against all the dangerous currents of freedom and ambiguity in which all modern men and women are caught up…

And really the problem?

…no blacks on her block. This is what makes her neighborhood vision seem pastoral: it is the city before the blacks got there. Her world ranges from solid working-class whites at the bottom to professional middle-class whites at the top… (324)

Ironically, one could say the same about Berman really.

Returning to what makes wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods possible, one of the things I loved most — and that must have been so hard to write — is the soul searching he does, wondering if his family would have voluntarily left the Bronx if they had not been evicted. If it had not been destroyed by Moses, would his family have followed the same path of white flight/ advancement with all of their neighbours? Would the Bronx have been destroyed through this flight of resources just as surely as other areas?

For the Bronx of my youth was possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility. To live well meant to move up socially, and this in turn meant to move out physically; to live one’s life close to home was not to be alive at all. Our parents, who had moved up and out from the Lower East Side, believed this just as devoutly as we did–even though their heart might break when we went. Not even the radicals of my youth disputed this dream…when you see life this way, no neighborhood or environment can be anything more than a stage along life’s way, a launching pad for higher flights and wider orbits than your own (326-327).

Rethinking this, better planning for it or I think better yet changing it, is something radicals certainly need to think through.

I leave you with the last sentence:

I believe that we and those who come after us will go on fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air (348).

[For even more on Berman and the role of the intellectual, you can read here. Also I apologise for not having the willpower to go back over this blog post and removed the overabundance of love that it suffers from perhaps.]


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