Inventing Bergson: The Politics of Time and Modernity


by Mark Antliff

Antliff, Mark. Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

List of Illustrations
Introduction            3
Ch. 1            Cubism, Classicism, and the Body Politic            16
Ch. 2            Du Cubisme between Bergson and Nietzsche     39
Ch. 3            Rhythmists, Cubists, and the Politics of Gender    67
Ch. 4            The Body of the Nation: Cubism’s Celtic Nationalism    106
Ch. 5            From Bergson to Bonnot: Bergsonian Anarchism, Futurism, and the Action d’Art Group    135
Epilogue: The Politics of Time and Modernity                 168-184
Notes            185
Selected Bibliography    219
Index             231

My overarching agenda in writing this book has been to historicize avant-garde conceptions of space and time by treating them as categories bound up with the philosophical and political landscape of pre-World War I Paris. In the case of the Cubist, Rhythmist, and Futurist movements, Bergson’s qualitative definition of time was central to both their aesthetic and their social theories, which contested the quantitative or rational notions of space and time promoted by other cultural arbiters. On the purely formal plane the avant-garde couched this debate in a number of interrelated, theoretical oppositions. Empathetic intuition was set against an insensitive intellect, quality contrasted with quantity, and organic or musical order opposed to geometric order. The empathetic artist’s ability to intuit the cadence of internal durée was contrasted with the analytical mind of the scientist, who relies on vision to focus on an object’s external appearance in a detached manner. A painting, as the product of a creative intuition, was comparable to an organism whose growth is a durational event, composed of indivisible moments. Creative time cannot be divided or sped up as can the time involved in industrial processes of assemblage. The Cubists (despite the geometricity of their style) and the Rhythmists sided with the intuitive portion of this equation and condemned rival art movements for emulating the scientific or intellectual approach. For example, both groups disparage the Impressionists for being too reliant upon the retina and thus prone to analyze rather than empathize with their subject matter. They also reject Albertian perspective for treating space quantitatively and thereby draining space of those qualitative and durational aspects discernable in the rhythmic ordering of their own canvases into organic wholes. Although the Futurists did not attack Impressionism, they too disparaged Euclidian perspectivalism, describing the “pure plastic rhythm” in their work as a musical analogue for durée.

Significantly, the disparaging of rationalist modes of social organization shared by these avant-garde movements continues as a central preoccupation of the contemporary discourse on modernism and the Marxist dialogue on time. For example, Michel Foucault, Martin Jay, Jonathan Crary, and Donald Lowe have critiqued the Cartesian approach to time as an oppressive social construct. Marxists such as Georg Lukács, Michael Shanks, Christopher Tilly, and E. P. Thompson have related Cartesianism to the negative effects of capitalism, and in the case of Lukács an organicist model of time has been proffered as a positive alternative. Yet as my comparison of the Cartesianism of the Action française and the organicism of the Bergsonian avant-garde has shown, both these temporal systems potentially lead to reactionary rhetorics. Thus in capitalist Europe at the turn of the century a group of Bergson’s followers critiqued Cartesian perspectivalism and capitalism’s chronometry only to arrive at models of temporal organization rife with racist implications. Current cultural critics need to consider the continuing appeal of the organic model in this light. It is my intention, then, to historicize that dialogue further by considering the interrelation of organic and mechanical temporal models from a materialist perspective. 

What remains for us to consider is the relation that this Marxist critique of capitalism has to the intuitionist underpinnings of Bergsonism. Does the negative appraisal of Cartesianism and of the scientific rationalization of time shared by these groups extend to a consensus on the positive import of its “organicist” counterpart? The issue can be clarified by comparing the Marxist critique outlined above to Georg Lukács’s alignment of temporal rationalization and the reification of proletarian consciousness in a text seminal to modern Marxism, his History and Class Consciousness (1922). Lucio Colletti, in a penetrating study of the Hegelian roots of Marxism, has related Lukács’s analysis of the psychological consequences of temporal rationalization in the workplace to a contemporaneous debate over “the great German-philosophical antithesis between Kultur and Zivilisation, organicist-romantic culture and rationalist-enlightenment culture.”

[Pages 168, 170, 171. Boldface mine – RD]

These snippets don’t do justice even to this chapter, let alone the whole book, but they give a flavor of the unresolvable contradictions of the modern (capitalist + Stalinist) world and their ideological reflections. Bergson’s opposition to Cartesian rationalism and clock-time belongs to the right, as this book among others amply demonstrates. This vacillation between the extremes of scientism and Romanticism runs through the Marxist movement as well. (I am not making any claims viz. Lukács vs Colletti, but note the opposition.) An examination of the history of clocks and the measurement of time, which long predate the capitalist money economy and the industrial revolution, is in order. Marx of course was concerned with the treatment of time in relation to capitalist production and labor, without embracing irrationalism as an alternative. A deeper inquiry into the fusion of rationality and irrationality in pre-modern and modern times is in order. It would do well for those interested in the issue of instrumental reason, for starters, to investigate the history of instruments. [RD]

Marx on political economy vs reversion to Romanticism

Karl Marx on automatons, machinery, capital & labor

Marx on Capital, Machinery, Universality, Descartes:
From Worship to Instrumentalization of Nature

Marx on Science, Religion, Historical Method

From Hegel to Marcuse” by Lucio Colletti

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography

Descartes & Marxism: Selected Bibliography

Anti-Bergson: Bibliography & Links

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 4 August 2020

Site ©1999-2020 Ralph Dumain