The Canon. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity By Marshall Berman

October 29, 2009

Marshall Berman's book was first published in the UK in 1983 by Verso and it had an immediate impact. Perry Anderson wrote an 18-page review in New Left Review that was respectful - "surely ... a classic in its field" - yet critical. Berman wrote a ten-page response in the same publication.

I still have faded stencils of the articles and a battered copy of the book. From 1985, they became set readings on "Modern Times", the final-year core course of the bachelor in cultural studies at the University (then Polytechnic) of East London, where I have taught since 1983. Berman was also the main influence on the volume Modern Times that several of us in the department produced in 1996, as well as some key Open University texts.

Why? The early 1980s were a moment of transition in Marxism. There was an increasing engagement with postmodernism and detachment from the structuralist theories that had dominated Left thinking in the 1970s. Class-based paradigms had been ruptured by feminists and race theorists. In France, the focus had shifted to signs and discourse, and in the UK, Stuart Hall and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies argued for the more mobile theories of Gramsci, the significance of popular culture and the fragmentation of modern identities. The concepts of postmodernism and postmodernity, applied in the first instance to the arts in the US but later widened to include post-structuralism in Europe, meant that intellectual attention turned also to modernity and modernism - to what preceded postmodernity.

Berman's superbly written book made a crucial contribution to this trend. Drawing on the work of 19th-century modernist thinkers, he expanded and enriched the notions of modernity and modernism (albeit not to the liking of Anderson) by pulling them away from specific historical conjunctures and elite cultural forms (Anderson's focus) and reshaping them to refer not only to art and thought but to life itself: to the emergence of a modern sensibility; to the creativity of ordinary people negotiating the perils and possibilities of everyday life in the metropolis. His concern was with the personal and spatial consequences of modernisation. "To be modern ... is to experience ... life as a maelstrom, to find one's world in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction ... To be modernist is ... to become the subjects as well as the objects of modernisation."

Although Berman's new world was inclusive in spirit, women occupied a marginal place in his narrative. But at the moment of publication this was more of an incitement than a drawback. His expansive framework was easily appropriated to illuminate the transformations in women's lives and consciousness. His optimistic yet dialectical vision of modernity - his "modernism of the streets" - influenced my own work on the cultures of consumption and more recently on cosmopolitanism.

The imaginative range, intellectual force and infectious generosity of this book are what place it incontestably in the gallery of canonical texts. Berman has just published a new book, On the Town. How will it compare?

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