Ross Posnock's Henry James

Critical or Postmodern?


John Abromeit




Ross Posnock. The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity. (Oxford UP, 1991). 358pp.


n The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity, Ross Posnock draws on the critical theory of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno of the pragmatism of John Dewey to undertake a fundamental reinterpretation of the life and work and Henry James. Posnock calls into question the standard reading of James as a high modernist, i.e. as a conservative aesthete who sought to escape the turbulence and alleged vulgarity of modern mass society by retreating into the transcendent realm of art. Posnock seeks to show instead that James' life and work --especially in its later phase-- represented a third way between the rigid myth of purity of the bourgeois gentility on the one hand and the philistine cult of efficiency of the liberal middle class on the other. To support his case Posnock elaborates certain key concepts from the work of Benjamin, Adorno and Dewey that he believes provide a more adequate interpretative framework for James' work.

Posnock's reinterpretation is based on the familiar hermeneutic principle that we unavoidably read our own biases and the biases of the cultural context in which we live into the works we seek to understand. Taking this premise as my starting point, I would like to argue that, despite his assurances to the contrary, Posnock has drawn a picture of Henry James which is more postmodern than critical. To demonstrate that his interpretation ultimately has less to do with the negative critical theory of the Frankfurt School than with the affirmative "postmodern" methods of interpretation which have become so influential in the humanities in the United States, I will examine three central issues of Posnock's reading of James: the question of subjectivity, the relationship of art to society and the status of theory. Posnock attempts to place Dewey in the same camp as Benjamin and Adorno, but, as I hope to show, important differences exist between their philosophies; Posnock's interpretation of James is more in the spirit of the former than the latter.

In the preface, Posnock claims that he is "not committed" to the "Foucault-inspired strategy" of "dissolving the primacy of the individual subject or text into a larger network or structure of relations and commitments generated by a....cultural logic" (ix). Yet throughout his study Posnock emphasizes only the restrictive aspects of subjectivity --which were embodied, for example, in the monadic rugged individualism of Henry's older brother William-- and the ways in which Henry James dissolved them. Posnock's depiction of Henry James does not adequately address how James' position differs from that of Foucault. He leaves us wondering if James' critique of bourgeois subjectivity leads him to dispense with subjectivity altogether. While this is a theme which runs throughout Posnock's interpretation, perhaps the best example of the loss of subjectivity comes with his discussion of Henry James' relationship to his mother. Henry identified with his mother, whose "perfect availability" for her father and the rest of the family he admired, even though he wondered if her "selflessness" put her in a position where she no longer had "anything left acutely to offer" or to make a "personal claim" (203). Posnock goes on to show how the "empowering self-abnegation" of the mother became the principle of Henry's own sexual life. Like his friend, the philosopher George Santayana, James opted for Platonic sublimation rather than the satisfaction of bodily desire. As Posnock notes, "certainly his desires and pleasures are homoerotic, but he keeps his body to himself" (204). While one shouldn't underestimate the societal forces discouraging someone in James' position from acting upon their homoerotic impulses, one has to wonder if his jettisoning of subjectivity did not lead him back to an all-too-bourgeois renunciatory position.

While Adorno was no doubt an outspoken critique of all types of reified subjectivity, he never advocated the dissolution of the subject tout court. As Posnock himself notes, Adorno wanted to "use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive identity" (185). Thus it is difficult to believe that Adorno would have accepted Henry James' reduction of the subject to a "practical convenience" (223). On this point James is much closer to Foucault, who, though certainly not one to forego the pleasures of the body, did see subjectivity exclusively in repressive terms. It should come as no surprise, then, that in his conclusion Posnock approvingly quotes Foucault's statement that the intellectual should be one who is "incessantly on the move, doesn't know exactly where he is heading nor what he will think tomorrow for he is too attentive to the present" (286). Adorno, on the other hand, engages in a determinate, not an abstract, negation of bourgeois subjectivity; in other words, he wants to retain the positive materialist aspects of bourgeois subjectivity (articulated historically in the sensualism of the French philosophes, e.g.) while at the same time criticizing the increasingly reified form it assumed under late nineteenth century monopoly capitalism. Thus, Adorno would agree completely with the Taylorists and "demagogic champions of Teutonic America" such as sociologists Edward Alswourth Ross and Luther Lee Bernard, that "the chief opposition to such effective social control comes from the old subjectivistic, individualistic and hedonic [sic] dogma of personal liberty" (120), although this insight would lead Adorno, of course, to draw conclusions opposite to theirs.

Posnock's portrayal of the relationship between art and society in Henry James' work takes place against the backdrop of the canonical interpretation which places James into the high modernist camp. In his effort to dislodge James from this position, Posnock goes out of his way to emphasize James' positive view of the masses and the modern city. Posnock attempts to show that far from retreating into the aesthetic dimension, as did many of his New England contemporaries, James' late work drew sustenance from his repeated immersion in the tumultuous immigrant ghettoes of New York. While this reading may do more justice to James' work than the standard interpretation, it is doubtful that Adorno's and Benjamin's aesthetics are appropriate to defend this position. Although it is difficult to generalize about someone so protean as Benjamin, even when he was most sanguine about the liberatory potential of modernized mass society, in his essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," he also cautioned against a superficial aestheticization of everyday life, which makes no attempt to link the diverse spectacles of modern society to the political and social trends underlying them. As he made clear in his essay on "The Storyteller" Benjamin was also deeply concerned about the proliferation of superficial, disconnected "information" in modern society, which was increasingly replacing older forms of structured "experience." Thus, whereas Benjamin privileged mediated experience over transitory "information," and believed that non-auratic art might lead to new forms of collective politics, James' artistic celebration of urban diversity neither attempted to locate the phenomena he described within larger historical or social contexts nor to draw any political conclusions from them.

Adorno was even more suspicious of mass society than Benjamin. In fact, his position was similar to that of the high modernists whom Posnock criticizes, insofar as Adorno defended art as one of the last bastions of resistance against the homogenizing dynamic of industrial modernization. In contrast to the conservative high modernists though, Adorno did not defend art as a realm of timeless truths. Instead, he counterposed the structure of artistic form to the leveling tendencies of the logic of the commodity. For him, art was a means of resistance to a society becoming increasingly hostile to individual autonomy. For his part, James had a less problematic relationship to capitalism; he had no real qualms about commodifying his own work. He said, for example, of his "poetry of motion" that "his primary interest in the matter was absolutely economic." (86) But according to Adorno, doing away with the distinction between art and life, or art and the commodity, as James attempted to do, would simply increase the individual's defenselessness in the face of overbearing social forces. In short, James' removal of the mediation between art and society places him closer to a postmodern position, which celebrates surfaces and commodification, than to a Frankfurt School critique, which attempts to relate art to larger social, psychological and historical structures and which retains a critical stance towards capitalism.

In his preface Posnock argues that Henry James has not been adequately appreciated as a cultural analyst. He maintains that,

his major cultural critique, The American Scene (1907)....places James in the company of American social thinkers like Veblen, Dewey, Mead, and Boume, and among such European theorists of urban modernity as Simmel and Weber, as well as their successors in and around the Frankfurt School. (vii)

Posnock seems to have difficulty making good on this bold claim in the course of his book. When Posnock does discuss the status of theory in the work of James he often resorts to putting the words of some other theorist into James' mouth. The one instance when Posnock does discuss James' version of social theory --his analysis of the dynamics of immigrants' candy consumption-- it seems as though Posnock is trying to read more out of James' text than is actually there.

The lack of social theory in James' work is also evident in James' "cultivated naiveté" toward capitalism. James makes no attempt to analyze capitalism, either to defend or critique it. James adopts an essentially noncommittal stance, for as Posnock puts it, he believed that "the self's relation to commodities" is "inevitably entwined not only with corporate manipulation but also with human expressiveness and creativity" (12). One wonders if James would have reacted in the same passive way to real-existing socialism, i.e. if he would have just passively immersed himself in the flux of everyday life and accepted social conditions as given.

Posnock supplies us with a partial answer to this question with his examination of John Dewey in the conclusion of his book. Dewey reacted to Bolshevik dominated Russia in the same way as James did to New York after returning from Europe: noncommittally. In fact, Posnock draws an explicit parallel between Dewey's impressions of Russia and James' mimetic method. He states, "With his mind `dazed and in a whirl of new impressions', Dewey's mental state approximates, to a striking degree, the open unguarded spontaneity of mimetic behavior" (287). As Posnock notes, Dewey is exhilarated by the "nervous activity" in Russia and experiences a "release," despite his awareness, as Dewey himself puts it "of secret police, inquisitions, arrests, and deportations...[including the] exiling of party opponents" (211). Displaying an impressive cultivated historical naiveté of his own, Posnock goes on to claim that the Soviet Union "teetered uneasily between repression and liberation" in 1928, and he praises Dewey's resistance of the "urge for conceptual definition, clarity and control" (287). But the question arises, when does "cultivated naiveté" turn into an excuse for unabashed ignorance? Dewey himself admitted later after his involvement with the Trotsky Commission that his "ignorance" of the "historic record and personalities" "was rather shameful" (290). The question also arises: would such a neutral, passive, mimetic stance have also been appropriate in Nazi Germany?

Posnock's discussion of the "dazed" stance of mimetic passivity becomes absurd, even grotesque, when he attempts to attribute this position to Adorno. He states, "Dewey flirted with the `irresponsibility,' the `blitheness springing from the volatility of thought,' that Adorno saw as the necessary `license' of genuine thinking" (290). Adorno's criticism of conceptual thought was, like his criticism of bourgeois subjectivity, dialectical; the task of philosophy, as he formulated it in 1965, was to overcome rigid, ahistorical conceptual systems with the help of self-consciously historical concepts, not to dispense with concept formation altogether. Furthermore, Adorno repeatedly criticized a purely passive reception of art; he argued, for example, that quality music could not be fully appreciated without the active engagement of concentrated praxis on the part of the listener. Finally, although few people were as open to new impulses in the arts as Adorno, he consistently argued against any form of "naive" reception. He maintained that only theoretically informed aesthetic reception is able to distinguish the genuinely innovative from the merely "new."

Despite his lengthy discussions of Benjamin and Adorno, and his invocation of many of their central concepts, Posnock has given us an interpretation which is truer to the carefree spirit of the postmodern, than the sober theoretical efforts of the Frankfurt School. Posnock's discussion of politics at the end of The Trial of Curiosity, clearly demonstrates his indebtedness to the postmodern paradigm once again. True to the recent work by Derrida, Lyotard and some other postmodern thinkers, Posnock takes a method that had proven fruitful in the aesthetic sphere - James' mimetic curiosity - and attempts to apply it to the sphere of politics. But this approach, which dispenses with critical social theory, can lead one dangerously close to an aestheticization of politics: a practice which Waiter Benjamin identified as a favorite fascist propaganda technique. This final observation is made not so much to suggest an affinity between passive postmodern relativism and active fascist repression, as to demonstrate once again that Posnock's selective appropriation of critical theory reflects his own postmodern assumptions more than the work of Benjamin and Adorno.