A Millennial Twilight Faith that Has No Politics to Speak of

David Bromwich

  • Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction by Philip Fisher
    Harvard, 290 pp, £18.50, May 1999, ISBN 0 674 83859 9

After a decade or more dominated by special studies of anonymous or bestselling authors now suitable for academic recovery, Philip Fisher’s Still the New World marks a return in some ways to an older and less suspicious idea of ‘classic American literature’. Fisher is a critic who has written extensively on realist prose and painting, and his new book is a commentary on Emerson, Whitman, Melville, James and Twain, among others, with significant asides on Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. It aims to look freshly at these artists and to ask again why their originality matters. Names like Stevens, Eliot and Ashbery are frequently dropped and sometimes deployed, as well as Jasper Johns, for his painting of the United States that is and is not a map. If the book has a single thesis, it appears to be that American culture is identical with the culture of modernity. In the arts, technology and its social arrangements, America is pictured here as the key to all modernities. Such a thesis cannot be proved, it can only be ‘sketched’ – a favourite word of Fisher’s, and a favourite procedure. He sketches the radical modernity of America in pages on the rise of new forms of representation and commerce, and backs the historical claim by an analysis of aspects of poems, novels and paintings.

Much of the persuasive work is done by assertion and reiteration. Fisher remarks of America’s commitment to the new: ‘What used to be becomes nothing. All that now exists is studied with a knowledge that it might not be much longer.’ And again:

By a remarkable gift of timing, the philosophy suited to this condition [of restless and perpetual change], and therefore seemingly doomed slightly later by the short-lived process of sketch and settlement that had been linked to the physical newness of the United States with its as-yet-unpopulated and profoundly unsettled early conditions, turned out to make a bold, even better, fit with that restlessly accelerated technological transformation which, with its permanently unsettled conditions, would guarantee that, in effect, it would always be a new world.

The last sentence came out trampled and woozy for the pardonable reason that it was trying to pack in the entire argument of the book. A brief translation is offered in Fisher’s concluding sentence: ‘This book was written to affirm my conviction that in America in the year 2000 it is still the new world.’

Americans, Fisher observes, have long been captivated by new varieties of ‘social space’, and have always been ready with a new sort of mobile energy to fill them. This is as it should be. We must not, he thinks, be tempted by the ‘nostalgic pessimism’ of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which traced American individualism to an imperial appetite and the project of continental expansion. Turner’s insight may sound like common sense: once the last frontier has closed, Americans will have to teach themselves how to live, and at just that point the New World will cease to be new. But we have never come to that point, says Fisher. He is pretty sure we never will.

And yet, can anyone claim to know that the tide of innovation will never let up, that it will never press against human or natural limitations? This book replies to the question with two metaphors. Materially, technology is the new frontier. Psychically, the frontier of space has now been supplanted by a frontier of time, so that ‘immigration’ has to be understood as a passage across temporal boundaries. In America, the old become displaced persons, while the young are quickly naturalised. Children carve out trades, professions, social roles and ways of changing nature that are unintelligible to their elders. They ‘invent their own wisdom about sexual mores, family life, food and clothing, where and how to live’ – if the grown-up influence of the mass market is a factor in any of this, Fisher does not say so. Whatever the complex of causes, the sovereignty of youth projects every New-World generation into the future at an ever-increasing rate.

All this implies a curious hypothesis. Americans, Fisher believes, tend towards a gnostic incredulity regarding the good of created life and the ethical imperative of the present moment, as opposed to the openness of the uncreated, whose reality lies in the future. ‘What does not exist, but might someday, takes on a half-real, half-unreal quality long before it exists. But all that now exists is equally half-real, half-unreal because it exists under the threat that it might soon become obsolete and be discarded.’ Fisher knows that planned obsolescence is a strategy of big business, but he thinks it necessarily has emancipatory effects. Among pundits, Francis Fukuyama has arrived at a similar conclusion, and among fictional characters, the heroine of Richard Condon’s novel The Final Addiction. Like them, Fisher insists that the ingenuity of global capitalism now flows into all the interstices of out lives, and that, with its sublime new products, it will revolutionise all our former assumptions. He declares again and again, with satisfaction, that there is just ‘one permanent revolution, that of competitive technological capitalism’.

What if resistance to capitalism in the near future were to lead to ‘the closing of the frontier of invention’? Fisher offers no projection of how this might happen, but it is possible to think of various closings, desirable on various grounds. Suppose, in the next few years, millions of Americans decide they want to use government subsidies to ensure that local libraries are not replaced by computer banks. Or suppose we vote to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement in order to secure the jobs of workers against a continued flight beyond the borders by innovative employers. If any such fears were allowed to affect social practice, ‘we could face,’ warns Fisher, ‘along with the disappearance of creative destruction, the loss of the future’s priority over the present and, especially, over the past. Aesthetically, we would face the disappearance of what I have called American abstraction.’ Abstraction he takes to be the working method not only of poets and painters but the inventors of air-conditioned skyscrapers, the builders of the interstate highway system and the users of personal computers. These discoveries have brought, along with their convenience, vast mutations in social life. But we cannot have the benefit without the harm, and so we are thrown back on what Fisher believes to be a usual American trade-off. A social and political injury is to be accepted for the sake of an aesthetic result.

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