Rorty on Movements, Campaigns and Modernity

In the latest issue of Dissent:

Movement politics, the sort that held “bourgeois reformism” in contempt, was the kind of politics that [Irwing] Howe came to know all too well in the thirties, and was dubious about when it was reinvented in the sixties. This kind of politics assumes that things must be changed utterly, so that a new kind of beauty may be born…

What Howe said of modernism is true of all movements, but of no campaigns: namely, that it “must always struggle but never quite triumph, and then, after a time, must struggle in order not to triumph.” If the passion of the infinite were to triumph, it would betray itself by revealing itself to have been merely a passion for something finite. Anyone who prides himself on having achieved purity of heart convicts himself out of his own mouth. So Howe, I think, raised just the right question when, at the end of an essay on “The Idea of the Modern,” he asks “How, come to think of it, do great cultural movements end?”

I would answer this question by saying that such a movement can only be killed off by another movement of the same kind. It takes a new sublime to kill an old sublime. As the century wore on, it became increasingly difficult for cultural critics to avoid demoting “modernism” from the sublimity of a movement to the finitude of a period: to avoid saying that Proust, Picasso, and the rest were characteristic neither of a change in human nature nor of a crisis of modem society, but simply of early twentieth-century art and literature, as Baudelaire and Delacroix had been characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century art and literature.