Something New and Hard and Bright: Faulkner, Ideology and the Construction of Modernism

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When something is new and hard and bright, there ought to be something a little better for it than just being safe, since the safe things are just the things that folks have been doing so long they have worn the edges off. - William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Indisputably, William Faulkner is an icon of what we know today as modernist literature and the ideology of modernism.(1) Since the 1960s or at the very least since the publication of the modernist's bible, The Modern Tradition (1965), scholars have generally assumed that modernism in literature was born, fully aware and ambulatory, perhaps in 1922, with Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's Waste Land, but certainly by 1929 or 1930 with The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.(2) Unlike birth in the organic world, however, birth in the world of discursive objects such as ideologies does not always happen at a given moment nor, paradoxically, does it always occur in a time-present. Instead, the birth of discursive objects occurs retrospectively, in the way Lacan claims the human subject is born, as a being of the future anterior, one that will have been only after a certain set of constitutive conditions has been met and the set has been named within a relation to another set.(3) Modernism is one of those discursive objects constituted retrospectively, born long after figures such as Faulkner had begun to do those things the modernist does in fiction, things he did long before a name was conferred by critics and literary historians.(4) If all this sounds much like what Lacan calls the mirror stage, the reason is that an ideology is very like a subject and is as much an object of language as the Lacanian human subject. As a subject and an ideology, "modernism" clearly is constituted in opposition to a mirror other, a prior ideology in fiction that calls into being that set of features which can constitute modernism as the second. And it is constituted within a verbal field, constructed within the discourses of people who, like novelists, practice an art or who, like critics, otherwise have authority within its discourses.(5) What I want to discuss then are the roles of a practitioner and two critics who have had much to do with the construction of modernism as, in the terms of Terry Eagleton, an aesthetic ideology in fiction.(6)

1. Ideology

Those not attuned to the current critical debate may not understand the general sense of the term ideology or the ways it might pertain to those more traditional literary terms such as Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, and Victorianism or (my eventual interest) realism, naturalism, and modernism. Since "ideology" has generally been associated with Marxist theory, it is often dismissed as a merely tendentious political epithet. But nowadays it is widely used in the humanities and social sciences - in anthropology, for instance, and literary criticism - to label what anthropologists regard as that ideational or symbolic element in any culture, current or historical, that marks it as a specific entity differentiated from other similar entities. Cultures thus seem to have a material and an ideal existence, a body and a spirit, if you will. While including a culture's material dimensions, ideology focuses largely on the ideational or symbolic as the relay between the culture and its participants. As James H. Kavanagh says, "Ideology is a social process that works on and through every social subject."(7) Thus, as in "any other social process, everyone is 'in' [ideology], whether or not they 'know' or understand it" (p. 311). In this sense, says Kavanagh," 'ideology' is not the opposite of 'common sense' or 'realism.'" Rather, realism and the commonsensical define the ideological itself. Thus, Kavanagh points out, realism in politics or literature or any other domains of thought "can now be understood as the paradigmatic form of ideology." In that light, then, any claim that one stands outside ideology or that a text involves no ideology because both person and text disavow specific theory "is as silly as would be one's insistence that [he or she] is 'nonbiological' because [he or she] has no coherent theory of cell formation" (p. …