We have become so accustomed to speaking about modernism as though it were a
period in history when certain quite definite things took place, or more particularly,
when a certain artistic style, or perhaps more strongly, a certain creative mode of
production, held sway, that we have forgotten the basic fact that in the first instance
"modernism" was and remains nothing more or less than a concept. It is a word that
does a certain kind of intellectual work for us. Like all concepts, it is self-positing
and self-referential: "it posits itself and its object at the same time as it is created:''
Modernism, as a concept, is defined by its consistency, what it holds together, rather
than what it refers to; in doing so, it unites the relative and the absolute: "it is relative to
its own components, to other concepts, to the plane on which it is defined, and to the
problems it is supposed to resolve; but it is absolute through the condensation it carries
out, the site it occupies on the plane, and the conditions it assigns to the problem'' (WP,
21). Its relativity is its pedagogy, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, while its absoluteness
is its ontology, its ideality, and its reality. If this definition of the concept holds for
modernism, as I think it does, then it goes some way towards clarifying the difficulties
many of us have with generalizing concepts like modernism which however precisely
we try to define them always seem to come up against works that defy categorization.
Antonin Artaud is an excellent case in point-is he a surrealist, modernist or protopostmodernist?
He has been claimed by proponents of all three, which suggests these
categories are leaky, at best.