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.

A book like Still the New World, which mingles prophecy and practical criticism, with observations on the rhythm of city life in the manner of Georg Simmel and a narrative style sometimes reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan, is peculiarly difficult both to read and to try to assess. The difficulty is made more acute by the fact that Fisher begins, pursues and ends his account as if in this area one simply had to work from scratch. The names just cited do not appear in his pages, nor is there any mention of Nietzsche or Weber, or any trace of an existing critical and historical literature concerned with the effects of technology on American arts and manners. Even the self-made idiom of Still the New World passes through distinct layers from having been evolved in separate stages of composition. A thoughtful chapter about the dependence of privacy, in the fictions of realism, on a threat of publicity and exposure, was first published in the mid-1980s. A longer and less perspicuous stretch of writing on ‘damaged social space’ came out in Representations in the late 1980s and still bears the marks of that moment and milieu: the eclectic itinerary, the clinical tone, the moralistic undertaste. It could not have been inferred from either of these articles that the author meant to endorse the system he was describing.

Every chapter has its coinages – the book generates these prolifically, handles them with care for a while, and then goes on to something else. Thus Fisher distinguishes between ‘state-based realism’ (a state being a mood portrayed with impartiality and a possible empathy), ‘voice-based realism’ (which creates intimacy by forcing a reader’s attention to dialect) and ‘statistical realism’. None of these is accorded much illustration, and one comes away doubting whether state-based realism is an American or even a 19th-century invention, and wondering why passages of speech in dialect cannot do almost anything ‘neutral’ speech can do. (Fisher overrates both the intimacy and the opacity of dialect. He thinks the ‘Scotch Novels’ of Sir Walter Scott are unreadable, and that this effect was calculated.)

Among the invented terms are some that deserve to catch on. Fisher speaks of the ‘dark screen narration’ with which Hemingway leaves a reader to fill out scenes of dialogue that have been shorn of visual properties. The transferred use of ‘immigrant’, whatever one makes of its propriety, is ingenious and memorable. On the other hand, where a new word or an explanatory phrase is needed for clarity, it is commonly withheld as a piece of unwanted explicitness, a trespass against the decorum of the sketch. Fisher’s preferred way of coming to grips is to allegorise ordinary words by giving them a positive or negative valence. Individuality and privacy are bad, according to his notation, while commonness and transparency are good. Underlying this particular choice is a pronounced hostility to the idea of fixed personal identity – a creation, Fisher thinks, of bourgeois realism in its regressive mode – and there are other coded discriminations that do eventually come into focus. Yet the private jargon, made up of common words with peculiar meanings, obscures the argument more completely than conventional jargon could do. It is less pretentious but more mystifying.

The abstractness of the terminology works subtly to favour the triumphalist argument for the new. When we are told, for example, of ‘damaged social space’ that its production has been the work of American commerce and its representation the work of American art through the ages, who will pretend that damaged social space is too high a price to pay for all the artistic and technological dividends? The phrase is in fact an inverted instance of the pathetic fallacy. It is not pathetic enough. Californians who grew up in the 1950s remember vividly the photographs of working-class women dragged kicking from their homes to clear the site of Chavez Ravine, the new stadium of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which needed plenty of space to carve out a new freeway offramp in a secluded neighbourhood. It is hard now to bring those images back to mind, let alone to imagine a different pattern of renovation. The matter-of-fact and comforting sound of ‘damaged social space’ only makes the task harder. The truth is that they did urban renewal better in Europe, and one element of that success was to route the freeways around the neighbourhoods, rather than through them. Many Americans see this and can feel it today once the difference is pointed out, but even to make the comparison would be to enter a different realm from Still the New World. To the national habit of acquiescence in the fast and available, the convenient and transparent, whatever the cost to nature and society, Fisher lends his support by giving the process a metaphysical dimension.

Presented as a plea for the new, this joint defence of art and commerce is not in itself new. Yet Fisher’s is the first book in a long time, written by a mainstream academic in the humanities, to endorse with real vehemence the theory that the advance of the arts and the progress of the market go hand in hand, and that on the whole we ought to be glad they do. An argument that draws from such miscellaneous sources to make its case may incur scepticism on either of two possible fronts. We will not feel drawn irresistibly to the future defined by the New-World amalgam merely because it is said to be irresistible, since it is not; we will be drawn if we are persuaded that the life it offers is consistent with ideas of human progress which are not the business only of technology and art. At the same time, the critical argument that supports the New-World idea – the analogy between art and commerce, between remaking the text and remaking the social text – will only carry conviction if it can tell a story about American artists that seems broadly fair and true.

After a brisk exordium touching on the Enlightenment and its uniformitarian ideal of ‘Cartesian social space’ – another coinage – Fisher dates the new world of aesthetic invention in America from the essays of Emerson and the poetry of Whitman. These writers are offered as prophets of the ‘creative destruction’ of modernity, Whitman especially in Song of Myself and Emerson in the essay ‘Circles’. If they made the mistake of confining the open road to an actual time and place, it is the happy accident of their work to have fostered a hope the 20th century brought to fulfilment. ‘A merely temporarily unfinished newness made it possible to sketch the philosophy for a new, permanently unsettled rhythm of creation and destruction.’ Emerson often does fall in with this optimistic, or, as he called it, ‘saccharine’ view of the good of modernisation. In ‘Circles’, he seems to say that endless renovation is simply the fate of the mind. ‘The terror of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.’ The aphorisms of ‘Circles’ suggest a psychology of relentless adaptation, a constant reframing of human purposes and horizons, and one can trace some of the disturbing consequences in Emerson’s ‘Ode Inscribed to W.H. Channing’, a backward apology for the progressive effects of the war with Mexico in 1848. And yet that poem is deeply ambivalent – Emerson had in fact opposed the Mexican war – and it closes in the only way it could: the cause of freedom and the cause of imagination will be linked when all men become poets. Fisher’s discussion calls to mind the Emerson who said ‘New arts destroy the old’ and ‘Property is an intellectual production.’ It leaves no room for the Emerson who wrote ‘Things are in the saddle/And ride mankind.’

The treatment of Whitman is much fuller, nearly fifty pages when you count them up, spread over several chapters: more space than is given to any other artist. Fisher writes here as an admirer. He has a familiar knowledge of the poetry, and finds good places to pause and reflect, a skill that comes only from long acquaintance. Yet his approach is didactic in several counter-intuitive ways, and one comes to feel that the Whitman of this story, if he actually existed, would not be either admirable or original. The argument centres on the relationship between portraiture and displacement. Merely to gaze at an object, with the representational eye of a Modernist, is to displace its claim to adequacy and divert its purpose towards a meaning of one’s own. This is a standard view and by now uncontroversial. The oddness of Fisher’s procedure is that he praises Whitman as such an artist at just the moments when Whitman seems to be obeying a different law of his being. Characteristically, Whitman looks on other people from a distance of curiosity, with a respect that is not detachment. He is, to borrow two of his words for himself, ‘idle’ and ‘compassionating’. But, as he examines such moments, Fisher decides, in case after case, that Whitman is really possessive and appropriating. His longest example is the trapper’s wedding in Song of Myself. The picture is set up as a daguerreotype might be, and we see the wedding group in a medium shot. By the time the bride has been called ‘voluptuous’, we are somehow close enough to see her eyelashes. On Fisher’s reading, the shift occurs because Whitman, as narrator, in stealth has supplanted the bridegroom and is inviting the reader to join him. But this need not follow if one supposes that the eye of the mind has a more variable focus than the lens of a camera. There are poets besides Whitman who testify that this is so by inviting our attention to an image that could not be a photograph: ‘Among twenty snowy mountains,/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.’

But the theme of erotic displacement holds a particular fascination, and Fisher returns to it in a setting where no dispute would seem to arise about the action. In ‘The Sleepers’, Whitman expands, in a single continuous trance of metaphor, the human surmise that all distinctions of identity are obliterated in sleep. The sleepers are no longer bound to their daily pursuits, but lie as if together now and identical, and Whitman proves it so by passing from one to another, flush with each body and soul. One of his stopping places is a bridal bed: ‘I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,/I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.’ These lines are the entire context, but Fisher discovers a more elaborate scenario: ‘the rivalry and the easily imagined rage of the bridegroom at being represented – displaced and substituted for, thrust aside – on the body of his bride is underlined by the first act of turning the bridegroom out of bed. Whitman does not turn him out of the room, only out of the bed, and we have to imagine him to be, just as we are, present to watch the all-night scene that follows.’ Do we imagine him so? Does the poem indeed suggest that the poet is ravishing the bride by a sort of aesthetic droit du seigneur? Fisher needs this fancy as part of the argument, to bring out how, for the artistic as for the technological inventor, ‘rivalry rather than empathy takes over.’ The interpretation hangs on the gesture by which the poet turns the bridegroom out, ‘thrusts him aside in the very act that defines the man as a bridegroom’. And yet the word ‘thrust’, which Fisher repeats twice, is his own contribution. It is not in the poem. The rage of the jealous husband is likewise absent from the poem. Turned out of bed, he may well pass out of imagining: here is a sense in which Whitman’s procedures are simply not assimilable to those of realist prose. What we are left with is not the all-night thrash, with a captive husband to add some zest, but rather the image of the poet ‘tightening’ the woman to himself – a poignant fantasy and unique to Whitman, the passionate, consoling and protective contact, hug or touch, whose quality is to last all night or all eternity.

Where Whitman looks at the self-sufficiency of men and women and their physical pleasure in mere being, Fisher is always prepared to discover a possessive stance or an acquisitive appetite. In the well-known section of Song of Myself about the twenty-eight young men bathing, he rightly says that the point of view may belong alike to the poet or the woman watching or ourselves. The men splash each other and puff and spout; the unseen woman bends over and imagines herself stroking their bodies; and Whitman observes, ‘They do not think whom they souse with spray.’ The scene is delicate and erotically charged, the more so because of its reticence. But Fisher must have it that the men are floating in silent submission ‘as they are caressed to orgasm’ by the woman, and he gives as the proper translation of the line: ‘They do not think whom they douse with their seed.’ These readings share a common fallacy. They suppose that the reason for aesthetic attention is always to bring about a result: doing something to the bride that is actual and traceable, or having material evidence to show for the pleasure of the bathers.

Whitman’s aestheticism is idle and purposeless, a quality that many readers have warmed to, but Fisher will go all lengths to bind it to a purpose. The unhappiest instance is his comment on the slaves at the auction block in ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. Here the poet praises the beauty of a man and woman who are being sold as slaves: ‘I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not know half his business.’ The auctioneer believes he can fetch a high price for them, while Whitman, the democrat, knows that they are beyond price. The section was written to celebrate the unqualified humanity of separate persons in adversity: ‘This is not only one man, he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,/In him the start of populous states and rich republics.’ These last lines Fisher does not quote, and he never mentions the sentiment that closes the section: ‘Who degrades or defiles the living human body is cursed.’ Instead, he describes it as ‘one of the most shocking moments in Leaves of Grass’, and offers this summary: Whitman ‘sells his readers first a male and then a female slave. The better he sings the praises of their naked bodies, the higher their price, the more certain their slavery.’ So the poem becomes a fable of complicity. The poet is made to affirm the necessity of a world that changes people into commodities.

A conceptually domineering critic, for whom minute particulars are to be proved on the pulses of the world-spirit, Fisher at times can almost make us believe what he cannot make us see. ‘Whitman’s world is one where self-identification with work makes up the strong and very widely distributed meaning of professionalism.’ Fair enough for ‘A Song of Occupations’ and some of the extended catalogues in Song of Myself, but it does not explain the Whitman who says ‘I resist anything better than my own diversity.’ And Whitman also says ‘what I assume you shall assume.’ Do we really think he meant to apply this to some people more than others, or to sort them out according to their professional niche? ‘Whitman is the poet for a society in uniform’: again it depends on how restrictive the uniform is. When we are told that abstraction and realism are ‘kinds of art for a culture of democratic individualism’, we may doubt whether this is after all an observation or a habit of phrase. The Russian realists of the 19th century were greater than American realists of any period, but theirs was not a culture of democratic individualism.

At some point in such an account, the categories start to write the story. Since we know that ‘privacy’ is carved out from the recesses in a new culture of publicity, and that the transgressive power of publicity belongs to the creative energy of capitalism, it must follow that when Eakins paints The Agnew Clinic, the woman’s body in the operating theatre will look vulnerable, even ‘desecrated’, even if that is not how the painting feels. Fine perceptions in this way are betrayed by being drawn into conventional channels. On Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes: ‘It is often difficult to see where to enter these homes, as though they did not wish to invite strangers at all’ – an accurate observation and an evocative one. But then, because privacy means privation, Fisher has to push it a step further: at the Robie House in Chicago, ‘The observer is mainly aware of an inner life that is self-contained and has no need of observers, visitors, or admirers, an inner life that is rich, mysterious, and detailed.’ One can look for a long time at the Robie House and find oneself thinking less of a rich and mysterious privacy than of the desert bluffs of Utah.

Still the New World is a contribution to a growing genre whose method falls between exegesis and the metahistory of trends. The puzzle of knowing what it would mean to assent to its findings is complicated by the fact that Fisher writes history with the equipment of an aesthete and criticism with the interests of a cultural historian. The aperçus that crop up every few pages have the medium-scrutiny finesse that makes all think-books intermittently rewarding. One of the best paragraphs describes the front page of a newspaper where ‘the trivial and the heroic rest side by side’, a collage that seems to be ‘itself a crowd, a mass of individuals who remain strangers to one another’, and Fisher goes on to suggest ‘the newspaper is a training ground for the crowd and the city, a place where habits of perception are formed.’ But he cannot stop there. The newspaper must be ‘an image of the total structure of the city, which is in its turn a concrete image of the human psyche’; no, more, the paper is actually ‘a total image of our psychic lives, as a day is, and given in direct proportion to our diverse appetites and interests’. In its more eulogistic moods, the prose comes close to the caption style of magazine writing: ‘Long before Cincinnati’s triumph could occur, the highways of America turned to steel, and Chicago, the junction point of the rail system and the Great Lakes, became the city of promise, the place “about to become” or “sure to become” the key city of the Midwest. Later, the highways of the country turned to concrete and asphalt.’

Throughout the book are jottings that keep up the optimistic hum. ‘New music, new visual styles, television, records, and CDs quickly made the swing music of the 1940s, the films of John Ford, and the screwball comedies of the 1930s seem as antique as The Scarlet Letter.’ The philistine note sounded here is alien to Fisher’s intellectualism and should have been a warning against the capsule history it prompts. The Scarlet Letter always felt antique: that was part of its agelessness, an element of the design, especially in the Customs House preface. As for swing bands, their sound and style were preserved more than rendered obsolete by records and CDs. Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz, three of the ‘Four Brothers’ of the Woody Herman band, did not try or want to purge the older idiom from their playing as they broke into smaller groups for the recording sessions of the 1950s, and on any album by the avant-garde generations of Parker, Davis and Coltrane there was likely to be a bigband number by Ellington, Basie, Gershwin or Porter. John Ford’s The Searchers became new again when The Deer Hunter was released, though it had never seemed antique to those who knew that it mattered. And a relevant mystery to ponder, for any critic who believes the arts are progressive, is that the screwball comedies of the 1930s seem less dated now than the comedies of the 1950s, or for that matter those of the 1990s. Newer is always better for ad men. Why should a scholar feel obliged to add his weight to theirs?

But this book is a work of description, much more than evaluation, which may be tested by readers against their own responses to books, paintings and the phenomena of contemporary life. Description will always sound impartial, as polemic never can, but it is natural to ask what the motive is for a study that so completely identifies the artistic avant-garde with the momentum of the capitalist market, a work that is world-historical in its diagnosis yet ultra-American in its focus and preoccupations. The allure of the subject, for Fisher, seems to have come from the half light of the future, where new objects begin to be discernible with that ‘half-real, half-unreal quality’ that beckons all the more for its power to confer unreality on the present. This millennial twilight faith has no politics: it was equally a motive of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defence and Bill Clinton’s belief that a computer at every desk in every school would create full literacy. Fisher thinks that the faith is radical because it uproots old habits of feeling and assures a perpetual supply of original thoughts. He says his book was written to celebrate ‘the lively fact of technology and a system of creative destruction that can – and will – undo the blockade that the present always sets in the face of the future.’

A peculiarly American enthusiasm is detectable here on behalf of the future – as if the future needed allies and one had better be counted among them. And yet, outside the world of Adam Verver and Jay Gatsby, this seems an almost mystical conceit. What attributes of good or evil can be supposed to inhere in the future as such? Fisher compares the rush to the Internet of young professionals eager for sudden fortunes with the upheaval of the California gold rush of 1849, and he intends a compliment to the system that produced both these swells of economic and geographic mobility. Nothing is supposed to be lost in the process except the forms of competence and livelihood that pass from the scene more rapidly than expected. Freedom, and above all the freedom of the arts, is said to be constantly enhanced and renewed by the mere fact of displacement. But maybe some things do change finally in the pattern of changeless renewal that has always seemed to set the New World apart. In the present market, the breakdown of every barrier against mobility leaves the global combines of technology and banking as the sole possessors of authority, the final reckoners of competence and worth in society and the arts. There are uniquely modern ways in which the loss of the past may liberate. But the destruction of memory has always been a weapon of tyranny, a weapon that by coincidence it shares with competitive technological capitalism.