Postmodern or Posthistoire?

Anthony Vidler, "Postmodern or Posthistoire?" in Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 191-200.

Now there is no longer any internal development within art! It is all up with art history based upon the logic of meaning, and even with any consistency of absurdities. The process of development has been completed, and what comes now is already in existence: the confused syncretism of all styles and possibilities--posthistory.
Arnold Gehlen, Zeit-Bilder, 1961

1. See Antoine-Augustin Cournot, Traité de l'enchainement des idées fondamentales dans les sciences et dans l'histoire, 2 vols. (Paris: Hachette, 1861). For a clear description of Cournot's historical theories, see Raphaël Lévêque, L' "Elément historique" dans la connaissance humaine d'après Cournot (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1938). Lévêque was, with Raymond Ruyer (who had written his dissertation on Cournot, L 'humanité de l'avenir d'après Cournot [Paris: Félix Alcan, 1930]), one of many "neovitalists" before the Second World Was whose work influenced Arnold Gehlen, and Hendrick de Man after 1945.

2. Hendrick de Man, unpublished manuscript, "The Age of Doom" (1950), published in Peter Dodge, A documentary Study of Hendrick de Man, Socialist Critic of Marxism (Princeton University Press, 1979), 345.

3. Gianni Vattimo, End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University press, 1991), 7-8.

4. Ibid., 11.

The history traced in this book, one of a consistent desire to renegotiate the terms with which postwar architecture treated its own and previous history, was on one level a simple product of modernism itself. Modernism, as the story goes, refused history in favor of abstraction; its functional promises and technological fetishism were nothing but failed utopias of progress; its ideology was out of touch with the people, if not antihumanistic. Its formal vocabularies were sterile and uncommunicative, which is why the verities of so-called postmodernism seemed appealing, insofar as they were apparently in direct opposition. In the myth of the postmodernists, history was welcomed back as a counter to abstraction; any pretense to functional program was abandoned as overdeterministic and controlling; its language, drawn from roots of humanistic architecture or the explicit iconography of advertising, was popular, if not populist. At its most extreme, as supported by a scion of the British royal family, it sought to return us to a more comfortable past rendered out of the whole cloth of classical (or better, village) style. Postmodernism was, it claimed, finally in tough with the people. In this formation, modernism appears to have been out of history and against history, and, in its strident, avant-garde attempts to break with history, was nothing but a failed utopia of escape from history. Postmodernism, on the other hand, seemed to accept history as value and speech, and insisted on the fundamental continuity of history, a history that comfortably ties us back to our humanistic roots and thereby rendered us, once again, more human.

And yet a closer inspection of the historical stances of the moderns and their supporters have revealed the disconcerting fact that, far from rejecting "history" as such, modernism perhaps respected it too much. In asserting the need to break with the past, whether in futurist, neoplasticist, purist or constructivist terms, the modernist avant-gardes in fact understood history as a fundamental force, an engine of the social world. Whether conceived in Hegelian or Marxist terms, as transcendentalist or dialectical, history moved, and society moved along with it. If the avant-gardes had any illusions, they were founded on the belief that this movement might be anticipated, its forces applied to new and anticipated ends. Even the abstraction of modernist vocabulary was derived from the deep respect modernism evinced for history--a history that, from Heinrich Wölfflin to Bruno Zevi, searched for essences and structures rather than stylistic affects. Indeed, it would be true to say that never was history more alive than in its so-called modernist rejection.

In this vein, however, postmodernism might be said to have demonstrated a profound disdain for history in favor of an ahistorical myth. Its ascriptions of "humanism" to the Renaissance were, after all, little more than the worn-out shards of mandarin connoisseurs, from Bernard Berenson to Geoffrey Scott, the very endgames of the Renaissance revival, with the Renaissance itself a fabrication based on mid-nineteenth-century myths of glorious Italy from Jules Michelet to Jacob Burckhardt. Postmodernism's willingness to ransack history, as well as billboards, for its vocabulary revealed it indeed as fundamentally disrespectful of history, and even more disrespectful of the present. For a prince to imagine a restored country village and his architect to imagine a restored classical Atlantis were two sides of an aristocratic illusion founded on an antidemocratic, if not antisocial, ideology of the postromantic period. Whether peasants in cloaks or intellectuals in togas, society was imagined as stable and in place, with no untidy disruptions forced by industrial or political conflict. In fact, conflict was surprisingly absent from postmodern models of society and culture; its "history" was, as Manfredo Tafuri suspected, a history "without tears," where the opposition bluntly stated by Le Corbusier as "Architecture or Revolution" was finally resolved in favor of architecture.

To think as a modernist, then, would be to think of history as an active and profoundly disturbing force; to take history on its own terms; realistically or idealistically to tangle with history and wrestle it into shape. It would be, indeed, to think historically. To think as a postmodernist, by contrast, would be to ignore everything that makes history history, and selectively to pick and choose whatever authorizing sign fits the moment. History is used and abused in postmodernism; it is feared and confronted in modernism.

But the historical field after 1945 is more complex than such an oversimplified binary opposition might imply. For, starting with Kaufmann and continuing with Rowe, Banham, and Tafuri, the effort to overcome the polemics of modernism's willed break with history was itself a profoundly counterhistorical move. To imply, as Kaufmann did, that the Enlightenment and its geometries of reason were forms of the eternal modern, or as Rowe did, that the ambiguities of Mannerism were in some ways reemergent in modernism, or as Banham did, that history constructed a trajectory for itself that might be grafted into its "future," or finally as Tafuri did, that modernism was simply the end result of an epistemological break between the medieval and Renaissance worlds, was to imply that history had in some sense come to completion. If the end might be predicted, or indeed had arrived, then the future was to be bereft of all but repetition.

Here, postwar "histories" of modernism join with the commonly understood phenomena of "postmodernism" with a long-established tradition of what has been called posthistoire" thought. Invented as an idea if not as a term (historians disagree as to whether the word can be found in his voluminous works) by the mathematician Antoine-Augustin Cournot, "posthistoire" was applied to the moment when a human creation (whether an institution or an object) reached to stage when there was no possibility of its further development--when all that could be done was its endless perfecting. The "posthistorical" phase, as Cournot called it, followed the prehistorical and the historical, and was an inevitable endpoint of all cultures, already demonstrated by the static nature of Chinese bureaucratic society over the last millennium.1 For Cournot--and it is not impossible that he, or an account of his theories, was known to Le Corbusier--all culture and social objects, from institutions to buildings and artworks, developed into types and type forms in posthistorical periods. In this sense, the idea of posthistoire was conceived at the height of historicism's own apparent dominance: it was, in fact, a profoundly historicist conception, the inevitable result of historical thought.

As it was to be received in the twentieth century, however, posthistoire was less a historical than a counterhistorical idea, representing for the disenchanted intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s a kind of finalism akin to that already developed in post-Darwinian biology. It stood for an ending, a conclusion of all movement, and thus for an end to any hope. As the Belgian philosopher Hendrick de Man describes it, writing after the Second World War: "The term posthistorical seems adequate to describe what happens when an institution or a cultural achievement ceases to be historically active and productive of new qualities, and becomes purely receptive or eclectically imitative. Thus understood Cournot's notion of the posthistorical would . . . fit the cultural phase that following a 'fulfillment of sense,' has become 'devoid of sense.' The alternative then is, in biological terms, either death or mutation."2 From Hendrick de Man (and, we might hazard, his nephew Paul de Man) to Arnold Gehlen and Gianni Vattimo, the concept evidently contained the potential to destabilize and criticize the dominant historicist tendencies of the late nineteenth century from within. And it was a concept especially suited for the characterization of the history of art, which is, in a way, a history of things that, though stylistic or functional development, readily become thought of as "perfected." Thus, for Gehlen and de Man, posthistoire represented a kind of endgame toward which everything they looked at seemed to be tending. They saw a relentless stasis, and endless return of the same, an impossibility of breaking out of the iron frame of bureaucracy and politics, and a corresponding search for charisma--the leader of the event that would break open the possibility of a different or more active future; thence their fascination with both mass movements of workers on the one hand and with Hitler's program on the other.

If, in the post-Nietzschean terms of Gianni Vattimo, posthistoire is simply a recognition of the modern world as it is--a world of change without change, mutability without mutability--then "posthistoire" is a concept that allows the description of " the experience of the end of history." Taking his cue from Gehlen, who found the term useful to sum up the mentality that followed postmodern disillusionment in the great nineteenth-century narratives of historical progress--the moment, as Gehlen says, "when progress becomes routine"--Vattimo sees such routinization in the developments of technology and consumerism that, while continuously renewed, nevertheless stay the same:

There is a profound "immobility" in the technological world which science fiction writers have often portrayed as the reduction of every experience of reality to an experience of images (no one ever really meets anyone else; instead, everyone watches everything on a television screen while alone at home). This same phenomenon can already be sensed in the air-conditioned, muffled silence in which computers work.

Flattened out, simultaneous, the world appears de-historicized. What made up "modern"--i.e. the experience of living every day in a narrative history of progress and development reinforced by the daily newspaper--now comes to a halt. The "master" narrative, once a secularization of religious salvation, now fails, and multiple other possible narratives rise up.

In the context of our argument, it is significant that Vattimo goes beyond other posthistoire thinkers in order to join the end-of-history argument to the emergence of postmodernism. He specifies: "What legitimates postmodernist theories and makes them worthy of discussion is the fact that their claim of a radical 'break' with modernity does not seem unfounded as long as these observations on the posthistorical character of contemporary existence are valid." 4

Thus we are presented with the end of modernity and the end of architectural history, respectively, as the immediate corollary of a postmodern condition. In this way we might see postmodernism as a special moment in posthistoire thought or, better, as a special case of posthistoire thought in architectural terms. Indeed, seen in this context, (architectural) postmodernism has had a continuous presence in the modern world since the late nineteenth century. From the Hampstead Garden Suburb to Prince Charles's village of Poundbury; from the nostalgic Heimat style of the 1920s to the New Urbanist settlements of the 1980s; from the Queen Anne and Renaissance revivals of Edwardian England tot he mock Italian piazzas of New Orleans; from the streets of Camillo Sitte to the Strada Nuovissima of Portoghesi: all these countermodernisms and antimodernisms take their logical place in a world conceived as, finally, without history, where all history has been transformed into an empty sign of itself, deprived of its force and discomforting violence, combined in a luminous vision of a world without change. The addition of advertising, of the world of Las Vegas, to this iconographic soup was then a simple step entirely consistent with a view of the world as an image of its past and an illusion without future.

This understanding of posthistoire thought in architecture does not, however, exclude a great deal of work that, while it may look modern enough, nevertheless corresponds to a counterhistorical trend. After all, posthistoire already understands "modernity" itself as a closed and completed historical field, and the different styles of the modern have often enough been evoked in the same way that postmodernism evoked classical motifs. Thus, "constructivism" can easily enough be resurrected under the guise of "deconstructivism," while we have seen ample evidence recently of a neoexpressionism, drawn from the languages of Taut, Scharoun, and the sets of movies like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. We might suspect that even "hi-tech" itself, seemingly so innocent in its unabashed "modernity," would fall into this category as well. In much of this work, which seems on the surface to represent a continuity of the modern, we can detect stylistic conceit and historical reference as repetition rather than an inner understanding of the transformational dynamics of historical thought and practice.

Which opens the question: What, then, outside the politically regressive and image-filled frame of the posthistoire, is left for historical thought, and thence for a modernity conceived of historically? In the first place, it is not difficult to agree with Jürgen Habermas and others that we are still, in some way, deeply involved with the modern, as historically defined. Whether we place the emergence of this tendency in the scientific and aesthetic academies of the seventeenth century, the philosophic thought of the eighteenth, the political and industrial revolutions of the nineteenth, or the scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth, it is clear that our historical response to these phenomena is one of fundamental recognition, of affinity rather than estrangement. A recent example would be that cited by the Harvard historian of science Peter Gallison, who has found important lessons for contemporary global positioning systems in the temporal conundrums of Einstein and Poincaré. Secondly, if this is the case, it is equally clear that "modernity" is a continuing project of reevaluation and innovation, based on experiment and internal investigation.

In architectural terms, such a project would involve not the outward citation of an already formed language, but the internal study and development of architectural language in itself, or, alternatively or in conjunction, a similarly rigorous and productive approach to the fundamental program of the work. It is in such a way that, for example, architects from van Doesburg to Peter Eisenman have understood the nature of the formal language of architecture, and others from Le Corbusier to Rem Koolhaas have understood the radicality of the program. We might, indeed, begin to characterize the qualities of the modern in this way, thus bypassing the vexed question of style (itself a posthistoire concept) in order to construe historically and dynamically a sense of our own modernity. Such a task would involve an approach to modern history that refuses closure and neofinalism, and rather sees all questions posed by modernity as still open. In this formulation, the history of modern architecture would not seek to classify style or movement, even if this were part of the historical record itself, but would look for places where the uncomfortable questions of form and program with respect to society and its political formation were asked; where irresolution rather that resolution was assumed; where projects were started but left unfinished, not as failures but as active and unresolved challenges; where disruptions from outside the field inconveniently questioned the verities of established practices; where the very forms in which we conceive of history itself has been put into question. We would need to reassess disruptive moments and figures, not as curiosities and embarrassments, nor as washed-up utopias (utopia, after all, is a posthistoire concept), but as openings into the process, rather than the appearance, of modernity; we would also need to seriously reevaluate the sacred cows of modernity, whose work has become, too quickly, canonical, in order to detect the internal inconsistencies, the still open questions lurking behind their monographical facades; finally, we would need to open up those ideas to "modernism" so prevalent after the Second World War that were proposed in order to tidy up the erratic field of the early avant-gardes and to provide rules for being modern in the era of reconstruction.

In this context, historians of the modern movement might then be seen not only as contributing to our historical knowledge of earlier phases of the modern, although this is important, but equally as instances of the processes of modernity's self-reflection, themselves to be opened up as unanswered questions. Thus Kaufmann's formal definition of "autonomy" that resonated so powerfully in the practice of architects from Johnson and Rossi to Eisenman; Rowe's condensation of all history into a set of figure-ground elements ready to be collaged together in the simulacrum of a "city for all seasons"; Pevsner's already nervous identification of the "return of historicism" in 1960 (a phenomenon that might lead us to question the apparent newness of the postmodern irruption in the 1980s); Banham's interrogation of the "program" as calling for a new relationship between science and aesthetics, which gave so strong an impetus to the experiments of Cedric Price; and Tafuri's reinscription of modernity as constituted by the initial gesture of the Renaissance, thereby opening up the perceived nature of modernity itself--all these "histories" should be conceived as so many modernist projects in and for themselves, and used to challenge the preconceptions of our own historical consciousness.



3308g 3702c 3702k 3704c 3704k 3715c 3716i 3720u 3773n 3775u 3785j 3792 3792f 4401d 4600o

Quondam © 2016.10.17