Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses.

Author:O'Brian, John
Position:Critical essay


Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 534 pp.; 23 color ills., 126 b/w. $45.00

One of the principal themes explored in this expansive book is the hygienic reordering of the senses within modernism and American culture in the twentieth century. The change in sensibilities--the new watchwords were autonomy and purity--helped to generate an appetite for formalism, which in turn prepared the way for what Caroline Jones calls the "Greenberg effect." As conceived by Jones, the "Greenberg effect" is a dispersed phenomenon larger than the critic himself and the cultural authority he commanded. It describes how his particular subjectivity was related to broader patterns of American modernization and modernity, in particular, to regimes of bureaucratization and the visual within modernism. Clement Greenberg's personality and predispositions are not absent from the book, but their role in its intersecting narratives are placed at the service of larger constructs. The theories of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Michel Foucault--particularly Foucault, it seems to me--figure prominently in determining how Jones's constructs are worked through.

The sweep and ambition of Jones's project, her desire to produce a Foucauldian archaeology of American modernism underwritten by the so-called Greenberg effect, stand in opposition to the two conventional biographies published on the critic since his death in 1994. (1) If Greenberg's stint as a customs inspector is mentioned, it is to draw a connection between the bureaucratizing habits of the civil service and the organizing procedures of modernism. (Of course, earning a living in the civil service also announces an impressive cultural pedigree; Felix Feneon, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Franz Kafka, and the douanier Rousseau all worked as civil servants of one kind or another.) And if the stories published by Greenberg in Esquire in the mid-1930s are discussed, it is to place them in a framework capable of incorporating questions of Jewish identity and kitsch. Jones's framework precedes the historical details she chooses to introduce, just as the ordering regimes of modernism--auditory, economic, scientific, medical, pedagogical, and psychological, as well as visual--precede Greenberg's internalization of them. The title of the book is taken from "Sculpture in Our Time," Greenberg's much-quoted 1958 article. "The human body is no longer postulated as the agent of space in either pictorial or sculptural art," he wrote, "now it is eyesight alone" (p. xxvii).

Before he became master of the avant-garde, Greenberg was a master of kitsch. In August 1935 he wrote to his friend and confidant Harold Lazarus to say he was taking a westbound train through the Rockies that would pass close to the site where Chief Joseph had surrendered. The reference to Chief Joseph and his surrender to American soldiers in Montana in 1877 was not idle. Greenberg had just finished editing a biography of the Nez Perce leader for the Press of the Pioneers, which specialized in true tales of the far West and the Deep South, and had come to the conclusion that Chief Joseph was a great man. The predicaments of the Nez Perce and their leader strongly influenced his decision to undertake a detour through the northern states on his way to California. He wanted to see for himself their traditional territories, to look through a train window at the dispossessed land that drove Chief Joseph to lead an uprising.

In the months before leaving on the trip, Greenberg had been reading E. M. Forster, Henry James, James Joyce, Kafka, Saint-John Perse, and Gertrude Stein--these are the names mentioned in his...

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