Vol. 14 No. 9 · 14 May 1992

Who was the first to make a pact with the devil?

Malcolm Bull

3657 words
Modernity and Identity 
edited by Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman.
Blackwell, 448 pp., £45, January 1992, 0 631 17585 7
Show More
Fundamentalisms Observed 
edited by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby.
Chicago, 872 pp., $40, November 1991, 0 226 50877 3
Show More
The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial 
by Margaret Rose.
Cambridge, 317 pp., £35, July 1991, 0 521 40131 3
Show More
Under God: Religion and American Politics 
by Garry Wills.
Simon and Schuster, 445 pp., £17.99, February 1992, 0 671 65705 4
Show More
Show More

Although the modern has been with us since the end of antiquity, it has, at least until recently, always avoided becoming antique. As early as the 17th century, some were arguing that by virtue of longevity, the moderns must already be more ancient than the ancients themselves; but unlike the true ancients, who remained trapped in undying senility, the moderns seemed to have the secret of eternal youth, and for another three centuries they grew younger as their predecessors aged. Of course, such blessings are mixed, and the modern was fated to anonymity: being merely the veil of a present awaiting its apocalypse, modernity served to conceal identity and not to claim it, and the ‘modern’ would always eventually be revealed as something else the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque. The pattern might have been expected to continue indefinitely, and yet it has not, for with the appearance of the oxymoronic prefix ‘post-’, modernity has been exiled from the future and consigned, perhaps irrevocably, to history. In return, modernity has gained the right to use its own name, and so the modern, like the man in the iron mask, is now remembered for, and not through, its disguise.

Concealment invites exposure, and from Weber onwards, almost everyone has had a theory about how the veil became a mask (or, in Weber’s interpretation, the cloak a cage) and what, if anything, lies within. Some, like Marshall Berman, in his naive and strangely inspiring study, All that is solid melts into air (1982), have reversed the paradigm and argued that the process was one of evaporation rather than condensation. But this (as Berman admits in Modernity and Identity) is the view of someone who still experiences modernity as a present reality; and at a time when others speak of the modern as if it were ‘something from another century’, and modernity lies frozen beneath ‘an inexhaustible flow of critical discourse asserting that we live in the post modern world’, it is difficult to define the modern solely in terms of the evanescence of the past. Even those who eschew the term ‘post-modernity’ feel compelled to differentiate between ‘modernity’ and the contemporary condition of ‘neo-’, ‘late’, ‘hyper’, ‘high-’ or (as the editors of Modernity and Identity prefer) ‘low-modernity’. However reluctant one may be to see it go, modernity appears to be slipping away, and the need to discover its identity seems correspondingly urgent.

If, for the sake of clarity, we take the modern era to include at least the period from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, we can define modernity in terms of the social conditions of life in the West during that period, and modernism as the positive cultural response to the experience of modernity. It is perhaps easiest to start with modernism, which must, of necessity, already contain an implicit definition of modernity. But although modernism is particularly associated with only two movements within the period – modernism in the arts and modernism in theology – the two are rarely discussed in the same context. (Of the books under review, the volume on fundamentalism makes no mention of artistic modernism, and neither of the books on modernity reveals any awareness that theological modernism ever existed.) This is surprising, for not only did the two modernisms develop in parallel and come to prominence in the same time and place – Paris at the beginning of the 20th century – but the past twenty-five years have seen the simultaneous rise of movements determined to question their achievement: fundamentalism in religion and post-modernism in philosophy and the arts.

What is usually taken as the first reference to ‘modernism’ as a movement in the arts is found in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s review of the Salon of 1879, where he reports a conversation on the subject which took place some years earlier between a ‘foreign painter’ and Fromentin, the historian of Dutch art. Modernism in theology had, however, already been denounced by another Dutchman, the Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, who, in 1871, published a book entitled Het Modernisme: Een Fata Morgana op Christelijk Gebied (‘Modernism: A fata Morgana on Christian Ground’), and the term was, as a result, widely used in both Holland and Belgium. There is no reason to suppose that the concept of modernism as a movement in the arts is derivative, but the priority of the religious variety is indisputable (the earliest reference to either movement in English – earlier, at any rate, than the one given in the OED – may well be that in the 1899 translation of Kuyper’s Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology) and, thanks to Pius X’s denunciatory encyclical of 1907, theological modernism became the primary referent of the word ‘modernism’ in English and other European languages twenty years before artistic modernism could dispute the claim.

The possibility of a relationship between the two modernisms had, however, already been adumbrated by Ruskin in a lecture on Pre-Raphaelitism given in 1853. Using the term ‘modernism’ in a slightly different sense – to refer to the entire period since Raphael – Ruskin claimed that ‘modernism’ was the condition of art divorced from the religious beliefs to which it had been wedded during the preceding period of ‘medievalism’. Huysmans and Kuyper were both probably aware of Ruskin’s lecture, but their subsequent careers neatly illustrated the point that artistic and religious sensibilities were now uncoupled. Kuyper, the theological anti-modernist, went on to publish a book entitled Modern Masters as Interpreters of Holy Writ in which he commended the work of a range of contemporary artists who, although not exactly the avantgarde, included Max Liebermann, Ilya Repin and Walter Crane, as well as some of the more academically-inclined veterans of the Salons; while Huysmans, the aesthetic modernist, dabbled in Satanism before becoming a Catholic deeply hostile to theological modernism, and celebrating his conversion to the mysteries of Medieval religion in La Cathédrale.

Artistic and theological modernisms both claimed to be responding positively to modernity, but (as the writings of Huysmans and Kuyper reveal) they exercised a very different psychological appeal, and opposition to one might well result in (or be the result of) openness to the other. Theological modernism was characterised by rejection of the supernatural, suspicion of the irrational, a progressive, evolutionary model of human development, and an emphasis on the pragmatic value of religion in the pursuit of other goals; in contrast, aesthetic modernism espoused the doctrine of art for art’s sake, sought out the primitive and the irrational as sources of inspiration, and emphasised the spiritual dimension in art. What at first glance appears to be a parallel relationship turns out to have been a complementary one: theological modernism dissolved dogma, while aesthetic modernism formulated new and irreverent creeds. It was (to adapt the famous line of the Communist Manifesto) in theology that the solid seemed to melt into air, and in the arts that the holy was profaned.

All this raises a problem: you cannot desecrate deconsecrated ground, and a secularised religion should leave little scope for a sacrilegious aesthetic, so how did aesthetic modernism manage to feed what Habermas termed an addiction to the ‘horror which accompanies the act of profaning’? The explanation offered by Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism was that modern culture had not defiled religion itself but the role of religion: art, he argued, had replaced religion as the gatekeeper of culture, but prostituted itself by embracing rather than taming the demonic. Bell assumed (as cultural conservatives always do) that the modern age was the first to have made a pact with the devil, but Ruskin had already described the period from Raphael to the 1850s as one founded on the denial of Christ, and his Christ-denying ‘modernism’ was, of course, the tradition against which Bell’s demonic modernism reacted so violently. Yet the differences are revealing for Ruskin, the scandal of the ‘modern’ age was that the unity of art and religion had been destroyed at the Renaissance when art devoted itself to secular subjects; for Bell, art had not deserted religion but usurped it, and the profanity of art was not secularity but blasphemy. Thus although Ruskin and Bell both called for a return to the sacred, Ruskin, writing at the beginning of what is now called modernism, looked to the arts, while Bell, writing at the close, looked to religion.

The redistribution of the sacred effected by modernity was, it appears, neither a continuation of the divorce between art and religion, nor the remarriage envisaged by Ruskin, for theology had fled the church before the arts arrived, and they were left, unsanctified, at the altar. The irony of the situation is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that ‘medievalism’, which Ruskin had seen as the antidote to secularity in the arts, eventually became the antithesis of theological rather than aesthetic modernism. In the arts, the medieval was a source of inspiration for several modern movements, and even when combined with hostility to industrialisation, it was seen in terms of the future rather than the past; as the architect Arthur Penty (quoted by Margaret Rose) observed in 1922, ‘Post-Industrialism connotes Medievalism.’ But theological modernists, like the English Catholic George Tyrrell, saw Medievalism as incompatible with modernity and banished it to the Middle Ages where it took on the static quality usually reserved for antiquity. ‘Medievalism,’ Tyrrell suggested, ‘is an absolute, Modernism a relative term. The former will always stand for the same ideas and institutions; the meaning of the latter slides on with the time.’

Contrary to Tyrrell’s expectations, modernity proved unable to keep up with itself, and modernism has now become as much an absolute as medievalism. Yet the medieval/modern dichotomy is still illuminating, for it suggests one reason why the relationship between the two modernisms was complementary rather than parallel: they were out of sync. Modernism in the arts was reacting to a Renaissance tradition that was secular in orientation and classical in form: theological modernism was struggling to free itself from a world-view that in many respects remained medieval. On this basis, one might speculate that a diminution in the animating power of modernity would reverse the pattern: the arts would shed their blasphemous aura of sanctity and return to the classical tradition, and religion would reclaim the supernatural legitimacy it had exercised in the Middle Ages. Both of these developments have, in fact, been a feature of cultural life during the past twenty-five years. But does that mean that the two modernisms have lapsed into their pre-modern condition, and that post-modernity is just a return to the past?

Not exactly. Take the case of religion first. Although medievalism was seen as the alternative to religious modernism in Europe, in Protestant America this was hardly an option. In the United States, opposition to theological modernism took the form of fundamentalism, and it is in this guise that religion has re-emerged in the post-modern era. Taking its name from a series of tracts on the central aspects of Christianity first published in 1910, fundamentalism differed from other types of traditionalism in that it emerged in conscious opposition to modernism, and represented a new intellectual synthesis rather than the continuation and defence of an established faith. But, as Nancy Ammerman relates in Fundamentalisms Observed, fundamentalism at first appeared less resilient than medievalism: it lost the battle for control of the major Protestant denominations (splitting several in the process), and having been exposed to public ridicule as a result of the ill-judged campaign against Darwinism in the Twenties, retreated to the American South. Yet this inauspicious beginning formed the basis for the re-energised Protestant fundamentalism of the late Seventies and early Eighties, and gave a name to comparable movements in a variety of religious traditions. Wherever they emerged, fundamentalists challenged the modernist assumption that the social and technological changes of the modern world required some modification, dilution or reduction in the role of religion. But although not prepared to live in its shadow, fundamentalists did not pretend that modernity had never existed; they were more ambitious: instead of reformulating theology to accommodate modernity, fundamentalists sought political power in order to eradicate the effects of modernity and refashion society into the tool of God’s will.

In this respect, the contrast with post-modernism could hardly be clearer. By appending itself to modernism, post-modernism has not only given modernity a place in history, it has accepted its own belatedness. Even ‘Fundamentalist Classicism’, the name given by the architectural historian Charles Jencks to the trend in post-modern architecture represented by Leo Krier and Aldo Rossi, does not represent an attempt to recast modernity, only to reclothe it. And whether post-modernism is seen as problematising the entire category of the aesthetic, or merely as repudiating the artistic solutions of modernism, it no longer privileges the arts in relation to society or attempts to impose an aesthetic ideology. As Hal Foster observed (in a collection first published in 1983 as The Anti-Aesthetic and now, perhaps significantly, retitled Postmodern Culture), ‘the artifact is [now] likely to be treated less as a work in modernist terms – unique, symbolic, visionary – than as a text in a post-modernist sense – “already written”, allegorical, contingent.’ It is in this context that classicism has returned from its modern exile, and although the classical style once proclaimed the independence of art, it has been reintroduced as a form of self-deprecation rather than self-assertion. The revivalist impulse common to fundamentalism and post-modernism is thus in neither case a simple return to the past, for in the aftermath of the modernist redistribution of the sacred, old forms have taken on new and often highly political meanings: fundamentalists are aggressively reclaiming, and post-modernists playfully relinquishing, territory which, prior to modernity, was not even in dispute.

‘I take it as axiomatic,’ Fredric Jameson wrote in the couple of pages devoted to religion in his ponderous Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, ‘that what is now called fundamentalism is also a post-modern phenomenon.’ But the tranquility of the axiom is largely undisturbed: none of the contributors to Fundamentalisms Observed (the impressive first volume of a six-part study of fundamentalisms worldwide) appears to have heard the news that modernity is history, and fundamentalism finds no place in Margaret Rose’s unambitious but informative summary of the literature on post-modernism. Jonathan Friedman, in Modernity and Identity, allows that the reassertion of traditional religious values may be one of a number of cultural strategies adopted as modernism declines; but, in general, the existence of fundamentalism does not impinge on observers of the post-modern scene, and it is entirely typical that Paul Rabinow, whose engaging reminiscences of a term spent as a Fulbright professor in Brazil form another chapter of Modernity and Identity, appears to have seen nothing of the Protestant churches whose rapid growth in Latin America is chronicled by Pablo Deiros in Fundamentalisms Observed.

Given that few commentators remember, let alone discuss, more than one type of modernism, the failure to acknowledge more than one reaction to modernism is hardly surprising. But it is nevertheless culpable. Fundamentalism and post-modernism do not merely share a globalised frame of reference, an exaggerated sense of crisis, and an ambiguous relationship to modernity: they respond to the situation by selectively reappropriating the past, transgressively mixing high and low cultures, and dismissing the need for any justificatory meta-discourse. The editors of Fundamentalisms Observed should not, therefore, feel able to discuss fundamentalism’s ‘symbiotic relationship with the modern’ without lending an ear to the cacophonous debate about post-modernity, and the participants in that debate should ask themselves why they devote so much attention to the analysis of enjoyable but ephemeral TV shows (e.g. Douglas Kellner in Modernity and Identity: ‘I would argue that Miami Vice is highly polysemic and is saturated with ideologies, messages, and quite specific meanings’) while ignoring the far more disruptive, enduring, and genuinely populist manifestations of fundamentalist culture.

The apparent lack of connection between the discourses of fundamentalism and post-modernity is additionally remarkable in view of the fact that fundamentalists and (for want of a better word) post-modernists have a common enemy, which they both call ‘humanism’ – a term used to describe the ideology of those perceived to be defending the modernist redistribution of the sacred, notably liberal theologians and New Critics. In the minds of both its antagonists, humanism is represented by people like Martin Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, and one of the editors of Fundamentalisms Observed. According to one critic, Marty is guilty of confusing ‘the terms “being human”, “humanism”, the humanities and being “in love with humanity” ’; according to another, he is guilty of assuming that ‘humanists were humanists and experts experts no matter who sponsored their work, usurped their freedom of judgment and independence of research.’ The former quotation comes from Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto (a work that calls for civil disobedience to restore Judaeo-Christian principles in the United States), the latter from an essay by Edward Said (first published in Critical Inquiry and reprinted in Hal Foster’s Postmodern Culture), but in both cases, Marty and other humanists are suspected of advancing a political and religious agenda under the guise of objective scientific research, and accused of creating a ‘guild solidarity that dangerously resembles a religious consciousness’ (Said), a ‘humanist religion which the governments and courts in the United States favour over all others’ (Schaeffer).

It is odd that Said, a secular critic who has expressed concern about the alliance of religious critics and political neo-conservatives like Bell, should appear to be making common cause with Francis Shaeffer, a fundamentalist whose influence on anti-abortion activists is chronicled by Garry Wills in Under God. But although some of the more paranoid inhabitants of America’s ivy towers may take such parallels as proof that the traitors within have finally joined forces with the barbarians without, having the same enemy hardly constitutes an alliance. Yet it does suggest a basis for forming one, and as Foucault’s enthusiastic response to the Iranian revolution revealed, the idea is not absurd.

The potential intellectual affinity between fundamentalists and post-modernists is perhaps best illustrated by the career and influence of the original anti-modernist, Abraham Kuyper. As leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party and prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901-05, Kuyper can be seen as the forerunner of contemporary fundamentalist leaders who seek to combine religious revival with the pursuit of political power; but as the theorist of Neo-Calvinism, he anticipated some of the more controversial developments in post-modern theory. Taking the view that it is wrong to ‘omit the fact of sin from your theory of knowledge’, Kuyper argued that sin had broken the ‘natural harmony of subjective expression’ with the result that self-interest governed ‘the results of our studies unconsciously and unknown to us’. Since inter-subjective experience had been fragmented by sin, the only solution was to abandon the idea that ‘science grew up from one homogeneous human consciousness’ and ‘that nothing but learning and ability determined whether you could claim a professorial chair or not.’ There are, he argued, two kinds of people, the regenerate and the unregenerate; both may devote themselves to research, ‘but however much they may do the same thing formally, their activities run in different directions, because they have different starting points ... They are not at work, therefore, on different parts of the same house, but each builds a house of his own.’

Kuyper’s influence on American Calvinism has been considerable, but his arguments have been subject to differing emphases. One follower, Cornelius Van Til (Francis Shaeffer’s teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary), developed the distinction between the two kinds of science to suggest that those who rely on human judgment can know nothing of the truth which is reserved for those who submit to God’s law – an idea which (according to Ammerman) has led the ‘Christian reconstructionist’ movement in the United States to call for the imposition of a form Mosaic law, including (somewhat controversially) provision for the execution of disobedient children. But others, who allowed the unregenerate a larger share of ‘common grace’, highlighted the anti-foundationalist thrust of Kuyper’s epistemology – a theme subsequently taken up by Calvinist philosophers who argued that Kuyperian anti-foundationalism pointed towards a pluralisation of the academy. This was certainly in accord with Kuyper’s vision, for he had prophesied that ‘the days of the artificial unity [of science] are numbered,’ and looked forward to the time when ‘thanks to Calvinism ... liberty of science will triumph at last; first by guaranteeing full power to every leading life system, to reap a harvest from its own principle; – and secondly, by refusing the scientific name to anyone that dare not unroll the colours of his own banner.’

It is Nietzsche rather than Calvin who has got the credit (and the blame) for multiculturalism, but it is worth remembering that it was Calvin who first suggested that ‘philosophy is nothing but persuasive speech,’ that it is the Calvinist tradition on which much of American education is based, and that a fundamentalist may (paradoxically) be as much a ‘card-carrying anti-foundationalist’ as Stanley Fish. All of which suggests that the characteristically post-modern assumption that (to quote Fish) ‘questions of fact, truth, correctness, validity and clarity ... are intelligible and debatable only within the precincts of the contexts or situations or paradigms or communities that give them their local and changeable shape’ need not, as Habermas maintains, be an obstacle to effective cultural criticism and political action. For if fundamentalists can manage it, why not post-modernists? This is not to say that deconstructionists should follow the example of the reconstructionists and contemplate the execution of recalcitrant students (although some will surely see this as the likely result), only that there is there is no compelling reason why poet-modernists, having abandoned the shrine of artistic modernism, should not join the fundamentalists in seeking to rip the loath-some mask from the face of modernity.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences