[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Zurbrugg shows the influence of literary Decadence on literary Modernism and Postmodernism.]
To what extent can one identify parallels between the modernist and postmodern 'decadent' mentalities, and to what extent do these mentalities inhibit our understanding of technological cultural mutations? Pursuing this question still further, it seems evident that the blindspots of both modernist and postmodern 'decadent' mentalities inform and deform such seemingly quintessentially contemporary accounts of postmodern culture as the writings of Jean Baudrillard--or at least, do so up to those turning-points at which they advance 'beyond decadence', towards more pragmatic approaches to media culture.
Reconsidered with hindsight, the modernist 'decadent' mentality is perhaps best understood as a somewhat fearful, technophobic pathology preceding the more comprehensive cultural revolution brought about by the modernist technological avant-garde. In turn, the postmodern 'decadent' mentality resurrects a needlessly apprehensive mindset, preceding, and in many respects refusing, the still more comprehensive cultural revolution precipitated by such postmodern technological avant-gardes as the work of the video and computer artists of the last decades.
Some century after the last fin de siècle, most mainstream theoretical accounts of the early twentieth century now effortlessly jettison the myths of the late nineteenth century's decadent poetics, freely acknowledging the positive potential of the modernist 'cultural order'. By contrast, most mainstream and 'postmodern' theoretical accounts of the late twentieth century still complacently reflect the alarmist prejudices of the postmodern 'decadent' mindset, reflecting the positive potential of the postmodern 'cultural order'.
Defending James Joyce's Work in Progress in his essay 'Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce' (1929), Samuel Beckett memorably warned: 'Here is direction expression--pages and pages of it. And if you don't understand it, ladies and Gentlemen, it is because you are too decadent to receive it.'1 Judged by such standards, most contemporary accounts of postmodern culture are doubly 'decadent', both as mindsets still informed by the 'decadent' phase of the modernist mentality, and as sensibilities 'too decadent to receive' the affirmative creative of the late twentieth-century postmodern avant-garde. Certain key exceptions to this rule, such as the writings of Jean Baudrillard, fascinatingly refine--and then to some extent refute--the claims of such 'doubled' decadence.
But first let me define my general frames of reference. By 'modernist', I refer to the general cluster of cultural innovations associated with cultural modernism's responses to processes of social modernization during the period from the 1880s to the 1930s, and by 'postmodern' I refer to those more recent, ongoing cultural practices responding to the forces of social postmodernization from the 1930s to the present day. How, then, are these two cultural periods informed or animated by 'decadent' mentalities, and more particularly, by 'decadent' forms of creative and theoretical practice? As Renato Poggioli's The Poets of Russia 1890-1930, observes 'the modern idea of Decadence' is best defined in terms of those moments 'when the vision of impending catastrophe merges with the expectation that another culture will be built on its ruin'.2
This initial definition prompts three...