Decadence & (Po)Mo

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ... exhibited 1817 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

On the tl, Moct chimes in on my post about capitalist space-times:

It’s an interesting point that says something about the distinct social and cultural patterning that typifies capitalist development. I would absolutely agree with Moct here in that the frozen desert of temporal spatialization is the defining characteristic of our current epoch. We can see clearly that the postmodern, which persists despite the cliched nature of the term, corresponds quite directly with the movement of capitalism in a retrograde, if not outright stagnant, form. ‘New Economy’ mania from the center (which has evolved into discourses around ‘creative capitalism’, ‘knowledge economies’, ‘smart development’, etc over time) and the celebration of post-Fordist flexible production from certain sectors of the left have lent to capitalism a certain ideological legitimacy that papers over this decline—though it can scarcely obscure the sort of (non-)functional cynicism that has replaced ardent belief in the progressivist dimensions of this system.

This raises an important question about we how hold both—temporalization of space, spatialization of time—as both being constant (via mapping them to inseparable capitalist process, per Marx)  while also suggesting that one is capable of producting particular and distinct socio-cultural formations capable of being (loosely) periodized.

As an aside, uwunil pointed me to Susan Buck-Morss’ Dialectics of Seeing for some other reflections on modernism and postmodern—understood here in a primarily aesthetic register, though one plugged into wider economic relations—as being constants. It looks like an interesting book, and I’m looking forward to diving into it more thoroughly, but for the time being here’s the passage in question:

The Passagen-Werk [Benjamin’s Arcades Project] suggests that it makes no sense to divide the era of capitalism into formalist “modernism” and historically eclectic “postmodernism”, as these tendencies have been there from the start of industrial culture. The paradoxical dynamics of novelty and repetition simply repeat themselves anew.

Modernism and postmodernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology. If modernism expresses utopian longing by anticipating the reconciliation of social function and aesthetic form, postmodernism acknowledges their nonidentity and keeps fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will recur “anew”, so long as the contradictions of commodity society are not overcome.

What I’d like to add to this is the hypothesis, tentative at this stage, that the ‘postmodern condition’ asserts itself when the ‘modern’ goes into recline. This seems difficult to parse, given that these map to fixed dynamics in capitalism—I’ve suggested, for instance, that the spatialization of time that underpins the postmodern experience is linked the blind quantification advanced the forces of value and surplus value in the core of the capitalist system, with the temporalization of space indicative of modernity being related to the rapid development of productive forces, evolution of communication and transport technologies, and the deepening of the world market’s penetration. The reconciliation here is that as the latter declines—and the indices of world trade volumes, productivity measures, the rate of profit, etc. have indeed declined—the more the cold, steely mechanisms of the law of value are laid bare.

The period that most closely approximates what we are currently describing as postmodernity are the years towards the end of the 1800s typified by many artists and intellectuals as being under the sway of decadence. While the 1890s was itself the main locus of this line, it is important that this ultimately emerges in the context of the what has been described the “Long Depression”, which kicked off around 1873 and ended—depending on who you’re talking to—in 1879 or 1896. The National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, reads the depression as having run from October 1873 to March 1879, an analysis closely matched by Fred Moseley in his entry in David Glasner and Thomas Cooley’s encyclopedic Business Cycles and Depression. In the UK, however, the closely-related agricultural depression persisted well into the 1890s, and across Europe as rates of growth post-1879 remained well below their pre-1873 levels. In both Russia and the United States, whatever recovery might have taken place at the end of the 1870s paved the way for additional recessions, with agricultural and manufacturing sectors taking the hardest hits. France faced deep economic hardships in the 1880s and 1890s, compounded by the country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the subsequent reparation payments it was forced to pay.

However one reads it—as a singular, lengthy depression, or repeating clusters of depression and recessions—it is undeniable that these decades were characterized by extreme economic turbulence not isolated to one or two countries, and instead swept the whole of the capitalist world. The fallout was predictable: mass transitions from laissez-faire market orders to protectionist regimes, ballooning monopolies and cartels, and the re-institution of colonialism (in other words, the putting into place of the dominoes that would fall with the outbreak of the First World War).

That such a series of events would be crystallized into a veritable cultural obsession with irreversible decline and decay is unsurprising, and as Anson Rabinbach shows in his magisterial work The Human Motor, much of this contextualization centered around the intrusion of the discovery of entropy into previously-held beliefs in the eternal efficacy of progress. It was in the 1860s when von Helmholtz formalized the discovery into a series of apocalyptic predictions, writing that all things tended towards the eventual heat death of the universe. Against the prophets of progress saw human development as a great train rocketing into the future, this was a vision of a gradual breakdown into stillness: “[t]he universe from that time forward would be condemned to an eternal state of rest”.

Rabinbach points out that while von Helmholtz would quickly “retreat from the more apocalyptic  conclusions of entropy”, such ideas had already taken hold. Herbert Spencer, for instance, would suggest that all civilizations would ultimately tend to decay (though his brand of historical dissolution inverted entropy’s tendency towards homogenization by posing a law of increasing heterogeneity). Nietzsche, meanwhile, would pose the question “[w]here does our modern world belong—to exhaustion or ascent?” So many responded, loudly and with detached despair, that it belonged to exhaustion. As a proliferation of scientific studies into exhaustion and fatigue took place (leading, interestingly, to all sorts of proto-Taylorist techniques for better managing labor in a manner perfectly equitable the large-scale industrial monopolies that were beginning to hold sway), European culture found itself under the shadow of the fin-de-siecle. Rabinbach quotes Saul Friedlander as saying that this period found a replacement for the myth of progress in a “wholly new vision: that of the total end of man”. Similarly, David Weir, in Decadence and the Making of Modernism, seizes upon the notion of ‘decline at the peak’ to capture this particular sort of vertigo and quotes Vyacheslav Ivanov’s description of “the feeling, at once oppressive and exalting, of being the last in a series”. Such language cannot help but invoke the moment in H.G. Wells’ 1895 book The Time Machine, when the nameless protagonist arrives at a point, distant in the future, where human existence has vanished and the universe itself is slowing down to its final end state:

While I was musing upon these things, my attention was attracted by a pretty little structure, like a well under a cupola. I thought in a transitory way of the oddness of wells still existing, and then resumed the thread of my speculations. There were no large buildings towards the top of the hill, and as my walking powers were evidently miraculous, I was presently left alone for the first time. With a strange sense of freedom and adventure I pushed on up to the crest.

There I found a seat of some yellow metal that I did not recognize, corroded in places with a kind of pinkish rust and half smothered in soft moss, the arm-rests cast and filed into the resemblance of griffins’ heads. I sat down on it, and I surveyed the broad view of our old world under the sunset of that long day. It was as sweet and fair a view as I have ever seen. The sun had already gone below the horizon and the west was flaming gold, touched with some horizontal bars of purple and crimson. Below was the valley of the Thames, in which the river lay like a band of burnished steel. I have already spoken of the great palaces dotted about among the variegated greenery, some in ruins and some still occupied. Here and there rose a white or silvery figure in the waste garden of the earth, here and there came the sharp vertical line of some cupola or obelisk. There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden…

It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough.

Other identified the origins of decadence in precisely the ferocious pulsations of modernization that it was so contrary to. Max Nordau’s simply-titled Degeneration is the principle work of this tendency, shot through with deep paranoia of the effects of urbanization, the development of rapid transport, communication systems, electrification, and feverish cultural production—in other words, many things that we might consider to be not only characteristic of the temporalization of space, but were in fact productive of this very dynamism. Fatigue, for Nordau, is the natural result of modernist speed, and fatigue converts “healthy men” into ‘hysterics’. “All… conditions of life have, in this period, experienced a revolution unexampled in the history of the world”, and for this reason “the whole of civilized humanity has been exposed for half a century” to the conditions optimal for breeding hysteria. Nordau’s vision of society is a hellish landscape dominated by irrationalism, mysticism, and bizarre physical maladies; page after page document the rise of ‘degenerates’, populations undergoing premature loss of hair, teeth, and eyesight, so on and so forth. “Railway spine” and “railway brain” are of particular interest to him, these being the degraded physiological and mental states allegedly induced by the shocks of traveling of great speeds.

Nordau, at his fever-pitch:

Hysteria and degeneration have always existed; but they formerly showed themselves sporadically, and how no importance in the life of the community. It was only the vast fatigue which was experienced by the generation on which the multitude of discoveries and innovations burst abruptly, imposing on upon it organic exigencies greatly surpassing its strengths, which created favourable conditions under which these maladies could gain ground enormously, and become a danger to civilization…

We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria, and it is natural that we should ask anxiously on all sides ‘What is to come next?’

Nordau was, at the end of the day, a liberal, albeit a disaffected one who saw the promises of liberalism deferred by the world it had celebrated. He stands at a different end of the pole of his great contemporary Nietzsche, who he regarded as a madman characteristic of this doom-laden time. Nietzsche offered his own vision of a world in decline, which nonetheless swam in the same waters of the ‘entropic paradigm’ as Nordau and the others:

Disintegration characterizes this time, and thus uncertainty: nothing stands firmly on its feet or on a hard faith in itself; one lives for tomorrow as the day after tomorrow is dubious. Everything on our way is slippery and dangerous, and the ice that still supports us has become thin: all of us feel the warm, uncanny breath of the thawing wind; where we still walk, soon no one will be able to walk.

Yet, in contrast to so many others, Nietzsche marked a point in which the decline was not absolute. Civilization wasn’t fated to decadence, and an escape from the glide to complete breakdown and stasis was capable of being converted in an intensive regeneration. On form of this can be found in his prophecy of the impending ‘transvaluation of values’ that was to occur on the far end of degeneration. From weakness (the primary symptom of decadence) to strength, from man to the superman: these were the pathways of the transformation. But it such a historical mutation isn’t only to be found here in Nietzsche’s writings: the ‘realization’ of the eternal recurrence poses its own cataclysmic challenge to the entropic paradigm, which suggested a unilateral and unwavering voyage into cosmic descent.

[Brief note: it’s interesting that in the midst of this period of decadence that we find a proliferation of new articulation of temporality. It was in The Gay Science, published in 1882, that contained the first references to it, while eight years later in 1890, Henri Poincaré unveiled his famed recurrence theorem. While not dealing with the nature of time itself, as Nietzsche’s model did, it concerned things happening on immense time-scales, and the surface-level resemblance (not to mention their historical coincidence) between the eternal recurrence and recurrence theorem was not lost on all; in 1896, the mathematician Ernst Zermelo, for example, wrote in his notebook the name of an essay that would never see the light of day: “The Eternal Recurrence According to Nietzsche and Poincaré: A Theorem of Dynamics”.

Likewise, this was also the era in which Henri Bergson was unveiling his own idiosyncratic theories of time and memory—theories that, perhaps importantly (though unfairly), were soon thereafter regarded as being indicative of the flight into mysticism that characterized this era. And following in his footsteps was the psychologist Pierre Janet, himself quickly displaced by the rise of the Freudians, who built a model of the unconscious mind that profoundly temporal in nature. Looking back on this moment in his Deleuze and the Unconscious, Christian Kerslake notes that “[i]f this tradition evokes any associations for the English speaking world today, it is with a peculiar lost Victorian and Edwardian world, a world in which journals of psychology and physiology were filled with cases and analyses of mediums, somnambulism, hypnosis and spiritualistic phenomenon”…]

Nietzsche’s untimely attack on decadence was profound in France, at the time smoldering in the malaise of its post-war defeat and the wider economic crisis of the Long Depression. It was in this place and time that the most pronounced articulation of the fin-de-siecle mentality were taking hold: Decadents like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Charles Baudelaire depicted a darkly luminous world, lush and damp, that had rejected wholesome the myth of progress, while the closely-related Symbolists eagerly embraced the slow end of things. To quote C.F. Forth,

Positing the absurdity of political action and the inevitable suffering of human existence, the Symbolists rejected external reality in favor of a new kind of idealism, which in its variety of forms included solipsism, occultism, mysticism, and a fascination with the morbid. Paramount to this movement was the artists’ resolve to flee reality through a variety of means, such as hallucinatory drugs, dreams, or other altered states of mind. Finally, the decadent Symbolists refused to participate in political and social life, arguing instead for the detached position of “l’art pour l’art.”

Forth argues that this movement met its own demise in 1892, with two events: the launch of the avant-garde journal La Banquet, and the release of the French translation of Nietzsche’s Der Fall Wagnera fierce denunciation of the composer, who was a living legend for the Decadents and the Symbolists. Nietzsche was also promoted in the pages of La Banquet, having been founded by Daniel Halevy and others as a “reaction against symbolism” with the goal of “renew[ing] the pure and rich French tradition”. Nietzsche, read as a “philosopher of confidence, health and joy” who had “spent his staunch life struggling against nihilism and pessimism”.

Thus the political Nietzsche came to fruition, the one who provided ammunition to a motley and contentious range of actors, including right-wing nationalists, socialists and anarchists. It is in this particular context—or more properly, the context of these events in the wider socio-economic situation—that we can understand the writings of Georges Sorel (himself a close associate of Helevy of La Banquet), who filtered the Nietzschean influence through a heterodox Marxism. Rejecting the deterministic Marxists who spoke of the Zusammenbruch—the inevitable catastrophic breakdown of the capitalist mode of production—Sorel described the proletarian revolution in terms of a “moral catastrophe”, a “transvaluation of all values”. This catastrophe would tear civilization away from stagnant decadence, which was in turn denied its scientific status per its equation with laws of entropy. Decadence, for Sorel, becomes exactly what I’ve staked out here: the social and cultural effect of a capitalism that has become retrograde.

Perhaps the most important take-away here is this: Sorel’s vision of overcoming decadence does not follow along the path of empowering the capitalist classes, or investing the population with unbridled enthusiasm for the state’s conflict with an enemy, or from some pre-determined ebb and flow of naturalistic processes. It is instead the product of the class war itself, the repayment of “black ingratitude” to the ‘civilized’ bourgeoisie and the parliamentary socialists.


In The Postmodern Condition, Fredric Jameson describes decadence not in terms of a particular time, but an intangible feeling or shadow that exists as the underside of the modernist mind. “Why should proud modern—or modernist—people, at best merely apprehensive about their insufficient modernity, harbor this secret fantasy of languid, neurasthetic difference?” The answer is that it is both specific period and permanent shadow, because of the fundamental co-existence of the registers that decadence and its opposition index. And indeed, Jameson finds in decadence a ‘foreshadowing’ of the postmodernism, though clearly at this point this sort of language is insufficient to capture the real dynamic at play. Similarly, the very terms in which he addresses decadence fall short of the particularities of that moment:

“Decadence” is… in some way the very premonition of the postmodern itself, but under conditions that make it impossible to predict that aftermath with any sociological or cultural accuracy, thereby diverting the vague sense of a future into more fantastic forms, all borrowed from the misfits and eccentrics, the perverts and the Others, or aliens, of the present (modern) system. In history, finally, or rather in the historical unconscious, “decadence” comes before us as the ineradicable otherness of the past and of other modes of production — an otherness posited by capitalism as such, but which it now, as it were, tries on, as with old costumes, since these ancient decadents (who have no concept of decadence themselves) are the others of an other, the difference of a difference: they look at their own surroundings with our eyes, seeing nothing but what is morbidly exotic, but complicitous and finally infected by that, so that the roles slowly reverse and it is we moderns who become “decadent” against the backdrop of the more natural realities of the precapitalist landscape.

He goes on to add that the fin-de-siecle atmosphere of decadence was ultimately an apocalyptic fantasy, and that postmodernism lacks this dynamic. One might immediately protest such a charge—after all, hasn’t the apocalypse not inserted itself into every pore of the social machine? How different things are today! The spectacle of apocalypse has inserted itself in every pore of the social machine. Discussions of the current long-range economic crisis sometimes take up dressings of  zusammenbruchstheorie, but these are socially marginal compared to the great source of doomed-out visions: climate change. But we must ask, as Jameson did, if “such anxieties and the narratives in which they are invested really ‘intend’ the future… or somehow convoluted and return to feed on our own moment of time. Shades of Baudrillard appear at specifically at this point, with his understanding of hyperreality—the ecstatic, science fiction version of the present—as being a Möbius loop that infinitely turns things back upon themselves. But there’s a much more down to earth conclusion as well: people may belief in the apocalypse, but not at the level where habit-changing practice induces real belief (and thus real practice).

At this point we discuss the distinction between decadence and postmodern not in terms of the thing itself that underscores each (which of course takes beyond the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere, to the gears churning beneath), but in the depth in which these experiences are registered. Decadence as a form, the content being the entropic paradigm that filled it—at this level, there is still a directionality. Entropy, as Jameson points out, acts as a grand narrative that provides an end, even if that end is a homogeneous steady-state or a landscape of rubble, like Philip K. Dick’s “transformation of the world into kipple, the layers of dust, the rotting of all that’s solid, a destruction of form itself that is worse than death”. Decadence in the historical sense thus wasn’t a total inversion of progress, but a re-articulation of its commitment to some form of telos.

The same, it seems, cannot really be said of postmodernism—which makes sense. The compounding of capitalism’s negative tendencies would be reflected, presumably, in the cultural reflection of these tendencies. And it is here, in this zone, that class struggle re-asserts itself.

4 thoughts on “Decadence & (Po)Mo

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