European Modernity & Mass Culture


Modernism & Mass Culture

In our past sessions, we have explored different transformations that historians have designated as marking Europe’s transition into the modern era.  We have discussed technological advancements, processes of secularization, nationalism, and the transformation of conceptions of time and space.  The books that we read for this session add culture to this discussion. Each of these authors approach the ambiguous topic of culture differently, and thus come to different conclusions about the causes and implications of the profound revolutions in European culture.    Did cultural transformations reflect or produce changes in the political sphere?  Did the emergence of a mass society created by technological innovations create a vast, alienating sea of individuals, or a new sense of community based on the “spectacular realities” of modern life?  And what can we make of European culture’s collective “journey inward,” its turn towards psychology and psychoanalysis as the source of answers for life’s troubles?  The five authors for this session all contribute to a greater understanding of European modernity by attempting to answer these questions.

In Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics & Culture, Carl Schorske explores the cultural world of the Habsburg Empire’s capital at the end of the nineteenth century.  Vienna’s small class of bourgeois liberals lies at the heart of Schorske’s story, and he argues that we must view liberals in Austrian culture as occupying a different place than liberals in France or Britain. In this way, Schorske’s argument can be seen as part of the Sonderweg thesis that is often applied to Germany’s transition into modernity.  According to Schorske, it was the failure of Austrian liberalism to overthrow the landed nobility and secure political authority for itself that marked Austria as different than the Western European powers and set it on a separate path of development. 1848 marked a defeat of the liberals against the aristocracy, and it was not until the 1860s that the liberals gained a constitutional regime almost by default.  “Not their own internal strength, but the defeat of the old order at the hands of foreign enemies brought the liberals to the helm of the state” (5).  This was only a partial victory, though, because the liberals were forced to coexist with an aristocracy that mocked them and thwarted their every attempt to accrue more political authority.  The only option left to liberals, Schorske argues, was to turn to culture as a means of ersatz authority to make up for their lack of actual political power.

As a result, the bourgeois liberals began imitating aristocratic tastes in architecture and art, since art “was closely bound up with social status, especially in Austria” (296).  Eventually, however, sociopolitical events caused these liberals to relate to art in a new way.  “If the Viennese burghers had begun by supporting the temple of arts as a surrogate form of assimilation into aristocracy, they ended by finding it an escape” (8).  According to Schorske, they were seeking a refuge from forces that they had inadvertently unleashed onto the thousand-year-old empire.  Although the liberals were proponents of parliamentarianism, they sought to restrict representation; only after people were educated with Enlightenment ideals could they be trusted with a vote.  These ideals spread beyond the liberal’s control, however, and various groups within the multi-ethnic empire began using liberal ideals to fight for their own inclusion in political processes.  So while the liberals were directing a nationalism against the aristocratic cosmopolitans above them, Slavic and Pan-German patriots were arguing for autonomy from below.  The Austro-German liberals “succeeded in releasing the political energies of the masses, but against themselves rather than against their ancient foes” (117).  In this light, Schorske uses Freud’s notion of Oedipal revolt, of “son” revolting against “father” to explain how the Viennese liberals were ultimately defeated by their own ideals.  By the century’s close, the liberals retreated from the public sphere into the introverted sanctity of the private sphere, leaving the nationalistic masses to dominate politics.

Deborah Coen challenges this narrative in her work Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life.  In an interesting book that utilizes the method of biography, Coen questions the “retreat” of liberals to private life as a “defeat.”  Instead, like Gerald Geison, she questions the notion of a fundamental separation between private and public spheres.  She’s able to do this by focusing on one family, the Exners, who were a “scientific dynasty” in Vienna.  By focusing on their family dynamics and their influences on the wider political and scientific communities, Coen is able to demonstrate that for the Austrian Bildungsbürgertum, or middle class intellectuals, “academic work and family life occupied the same social sphere” (31).  The home acted as a space for the Exners, and others like them, to not only discuss work and politics, but to also actually contribute to their work, thus “bridging the public and private lives of its inhabitants” (23).  Central to her argument is Coen’s assertion that “Liberal identity in Austria lay not only in an ideology but also in a character – a style of speaking, reasoning, and interacting, the product of an individual’s education in the broadest sense of Erziehung” (11).  A vital part in cultivating this liberal character was retreating from urban life, summering in quaint villages situated “in nature,” and not only observing nature, but participating in it as well.  Moreover, the Exners did this as a family at their “colony,” Brunnwinkl, along with other Viennese liberals who also summered at the Wagnersee, creating a seasonal “liberal space” where scientific and philosophical ideas were nurtured so that they could be spread back in the “public” sphere at the end of summer.  Thus, Coen argues that “cultivation of the domestic sphere was not a retreat from politics but a precondition of liberal identity” (90).

Coen also addresses the impact of uncertainty on liberal culture.  Where the Enlightenment ideals of the certainty of nature led to beliefs in unwavering laws of nature (scientific determinism), new discoveries and methods of interpretation led to the realization that perhaps nature was best understood as a set of probabilities rather than certainties.  In other words, phenomena were no longer dictated by natural laws, but instead were seen as having a higher (or lower) mathematical probability of occurring.  This new way of understanding mirrored the socio-political revolutions occurring as nationalistic and democratic waves overthrew the old social hierarchy.  Schorske argues that the liberals saw the acceptance of uncertainty as the “death of history,” a complete break with past understandings of the world, and thus retreated from politics and sought explanations in deep internal sources.  The relativistic “psychological man” replaced the traditional “rational” man of the old liberal ideals.

Coen claims that this view is simplistic and wrong.  Acknowledging that nature and society are more complex than previously understood did not destroy liberals’ worldview.  Instead, liberals like the Exners were able to “tame” and “manage” uncertainty through quantitative theories of probability, which contributed to two goals: defeating Catholic dogmatism, and providing a plan of action in the face of crippling relativism (10).  “Skepticism was thus not liberalism’s downfall but instead a vital element of liberal culture and natural science in post-1848 Vienna” (13).    In this light, psychoanalysis and similar sciences were not an admission that there was no real truth, but simply another chance to understand the world.  Franz Exner, for example, argued that “psychology should become to the interior world what natural science was to the exterior” (50).  Ultimately, Coen’s account adds more nuance to Schorske’s story, showing how liberals were able and willing to adapt to larger historical changes instead of just retreating to the private sphere (the home, and the inner self) in defeat; moreover, Coen’s characters are active actors contributing to the new, modern world, instead of just reacting to it.

Vanessa Schwartz’s Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris addresses another phenomenon related to the birth of modern culture: the rise of a mass society.  In a thoroughly entertaining piece of history, she challenges the idea of the new mass culture as a repressive, alienating phenomenon.  She sees the “spectacularization” of reality in Paris, which included the creation of “the public,” as a means of community building, where people did not feel alone in the crowd, but genuinely felt a camaraderie with other Parisians.  Schwartz’s analytical focus here is the gaze – she studies what people are looking at, who’s doing the looking, and how they are looking.  Therefore, unlike in Foucault’s portrayal of modern culture in which “the crowd” is seen, or is the spectacle (the object of the state’s attention), Schwartz’s portrayal changes the perspective and the crowd becomes the one doing the seeing.  In other words, the urban crowd became a society of spectators.  This is an important shift, because no longer is mass culture seen as something that is overwhelming and happening to individuals who feel lost or alone in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, mass culture is something that is partially shaped by the crowd, which is portrayed by Schwartz as group of actors. Schwartz’s characters are not mindless consumers; their demands and expectations shape the possibilities of the producers.

Spectacular Realities examines a number of media forms that helped create this crowd by turning everyday reality into events, things that should be first read about (she emphasizes the importance of the growth of literacy), and then gone out and experienced or seen for oneself.  “Like the boulevards, the press – especially in its sensationalization of the everyday – promoted the shared pleasures and identification of individual city dwellers that transformed them into “Parisians”” (26).  Going to see dead bodies in the morgue was like “real life theater,” turning death into an aspect of modern life.  Wax museums recreated scenes from daily life and let viewers “view themselves” in a narrative form, because the curators always set up the displays in a particular fashion to tell a specific story.  Wax museums, in other words, let modern Parisians see themselves as a spectacle from the viewpoint of a spectator (131).  Ultimately, while Schwartz’s book provides a plethora of important and entertaining information, the overall point of her book shows that the “spectacularization of everyday life” and the creation of the urban crowd deserves a spot among the study of democratization and technological innovations in the formation of modern society and culture.

Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Springs: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age is a grand, yet confusing book, in my opinion, and in fact, its composition seems to reflect the very break with tradition and sense of uncertainty that his subjects felt during the era of the Great War.  The 1913 debut of the Russian ballet The Rights of Spring in Paris “rightly stands as a symbol of its era and as a landmark of this century,” Eksteins claims (16).  The reason is because the ballet’s music, choreography – its entire production – expressed revolutionary new ideas. On the eve of World War I, its message was that “If there was any hope, it was in the energy and fertility of life, not in morality.  To an audience decked out in its civilized finery, the message was jarring” (50).  This feeling of change and detachment – the signposts of modernity that were brought about by technology – were accelerated by World War I.

Eksteins studies the power of the masses and their influence on geopolitics in particular.  He devotes a lot of attention to Germany, because he feels that the German experience lies at the heart of the modern experience since “she more intensively than any other “developed country has given evidence to the world of the psychic disorientation that rapid and wholesale environmental change may reproduce” (68).  However, I find his treatment of Germany problematic mainly because he speaks in overgeneralized terms (“the Germans” did this, or “the Germans” wanted that).  He claims that “Germany had been the country most willing…to promote the breakdown of old certainties” (156), yet 100 pages prior he was describing how the German masses were clamoring to see, and almost worship, their conservative Kaiser, and how this pressure not only forced the imperial government into war, but also swallowed up any opposition (63).

In find Eksteins’ discussion of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic more interesting, plausible, and useful.  Lindbergh, upon his arrival in Europe, became “the new Christ,” the “most famous man ever” (242-244).  This was because he straddled two worlds created by the devastation of World War One.  One world was one of “positive values, revolving around family, religion, nature, and the good and moral life.”  The other was a “modern” world that was exhilarated by the act of flying over the Atlantic alone.  “The act was everything” (250).  After a war, the dimensions of which defied all comprehension, conservatives found a harbinger of traditional values in gentlemanly and self-made Lindbergh, while others – including “the masses” – saw Lindbergh as a star, a representative of man’s conquest of nature through technology.  These same ideas of conquest and progress through social engineering were taken up by the National Socialists who ultimately twisted and perverted morals to the extent that “death was the supreme manifestation of life” (330).  Complete and utter destruction through war (what Eksteins calls Germany’s “endless right of spring”) would purge and cleanse the world, allowing for new and pure life to emerge triumphant.  Ultimately, I remain very skeptical of Eksteins’ book. I am not sure if it is meant to be a way that the two world wars can be viewed, or an attempt to explain them.  I wonder if he is not just conducting his own grand ballet here.

Finally, George Mosse’s work Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars explores the ways in which war, and the Great War in particular, affected how nations understood mass death.  Mosse asserts that the modern world, beginning with the French Revolution, was characterized by a sense of loneliness, particularly amongst its bourgeois citizens.  This is how he explains the large number of volunteer soldiers in every war since the Revolution.  Because of this sense of loneliness and meaninglessness, men volunteered to fight for a greater cause.  This symbolized a shift away from men simply being called into action by their monarch.  “Men’s loyalties were being redirected from dynasty to the fatherland,” Mosse states (20).  This notion of a greater cause – beyond being a motivation for men to volunteer for the war in the first place – was also used to justify the death caused by the war.  Death, then, was turned into a noble sacrifice on behalf of the nation and its people.  This leads to the creation of what Mosse calls the Myth of the War Experience.  This myth became a tool of nationalism, and was essentially a coping mechanism for those nations that lost in the Great War.  For instance, in Germany, trauma and defeat led to the strengthening of nationalism and the War Myth as “a civic faith” (10) in which monuments and memorials can be seen as shrines to the fallen dead.  It is important to note that only the memories and experiences of veterans that matched with the larger aims of nationalism were commemorated in cemeteries and monuments (37).  In this way, nationalism was in the business of establishing and perpetuating official memories for the Myth of the War Experience.

He has an interesting section on the trivialization of the war, by which he means the processes in which the war was “domesticated” (141).  War themed books and toys allowed citizens to take control of the war, which seemed much smaller and manageable as a result.  In short, it allowed people to grow accustomed to warfare, thus dulling the impact of mass death.  Moreover, Mosse argues that changes in the ideals of masculinity, notions of activity and vitality, as well as the ideal of serving one’s nation in any way possible, all contributed to a brutalization of politics after the Great War (159).  This brutalization limited the number of possibilities open to politicians when tensions led towards a second global war in the 1930s.  World War II ended the Myth of the War Experience, though, because the Myth was not able to deceive people any longer.  More people experienced the war first hand due to a blurring of the boundaries between battlefield/home front and soldier/citizen.  Also, pictures, movie footage, and radio broadcast allowed more people to experience the war as it happened, and also exposed them to the new atrocities of modern warfare like the Holocaust (202).  This shattered the Myth and nations had to come up with new ways to deal with the mass death of the modern world.  The concept of “sacrifice” no longer sufficed in the face of Auschwitz.

All of these books reveal the turn of the twentieth century as a moment in European history characterized by far reaching change.  Technology, science, and geopolitics transformed cultures, which in turn affected politics, science, and technology.  The mass destruction and death caused by the Great War seemed to cut off the modern world from the past.  Eksteins shows that even the Victors experienced a sense of shattered reality.  They had achieved victory; now what?  (238).  Schorske in particular shows that while the masses were becoming active in politics, at least a part of society was becoming more introverted, looking inward for answers to the woes of modern life.  Individuality and “the self” took on a level of importance unparalleled to that point.  Indeed, Nikolas Rose claims that it was during this era that Europeans invented “the self,” looking for something deep within that was essential and true.[1]  Essentially, I would argue that this process could be seen as the search for a “secular soul” as the response to a movement bent on fighting the dogma of religion.  Eksteins calls this the collective “journey inwards” (298), and Coen displays that this inward journey does not equate to a wholesale departure from the public sphere of politics.  Finally, while both Eksteins and Mosse suggest that World War One was the cause of these new uncertainties, the other authors show that the forces of modernity were in effect before the Great War (and, in fact, contributed to its outbreak) even while the War accelerated and exasperated their effects.

[1] Nikolas Rose, Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Books Under Review:

  1. Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-SieÌcle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Knopf, 1979.
  2. Coen, Deborah R. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  3. Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  4. Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
  5. Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Creative Commons License
European Modernity & Mass Culture by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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