DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

1. Epistemic trauma

In religious history, the term modernism still refers narrowly to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movement within Roman Catholicism, and also to analogous developments in Protestantism and reformed Judaism. It constituted an attempt to bring nineteenth-century critical methods, especially those of pragmatism, to bear on subjects formerly regarded as beyond their influence, including the interpretation and application of sacred texts and other doctrines (see Pragmatism). It was condemned as a heresy in 1907 by Pope Pius X. This religious movement shares some of the values of the period in cultural history now commonly referred to as modernism, but remains quite distinct from it.

Given the historical intensity and complexity of the period, it is helpful to abstract several general values that characterize most manifestations of modernism. Such values are not specifically substantive or thematic, but dynamic and structural. They are the dominant qualities that sustain and distinguish the most advanced intellectual activity from the 1880s to the Second World War.

The most readily apparent of these values is that of epistemic trauma. This formulation signifies a kind of primary or initial difficulty, strangeness or opacity in modernist works; a violation of common sense, of laboriously achieved intuitions of reality; and an immediate, counter-intuitive refusal to provide the reassuring conclusiveness of the positivist realism that preceded modernism. This traumatic otherness stems in part from a conscious refusal by modernist artists and other thinkers to give their audiences the kind of spatial and temporal orientation that art and literature had been providing since the Renaissance and that had reached a high finish in the mid-nineteenth century, when novelists took pains to provide their ‘dear Reader’ with temporal and spatial coordinates and when the subject matter of most paintings was generally accessible. In a surprising and historically sudden contrast to this traditional solicitude, the cutting-edge artistic culture of modernism – and much contemporary social and scientific thinking – offered this quality of trauma everywhere. In the painting of Picasso and Braque, in the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, in the fiction of Kafka and Faulkner, in the poetry of Yeats and Eliot, the immediate difficulty, the epistemic trauma, is a given of the modernist aesthetic.

The kind of difficulty we find in modernist artistic culture resembles the kind of difficulty contemporaneous advances in mathematics and the natural sciences presented to the scientific establishment. In both spheres, the difficulty arises not so much from developments and complications of traditional techniques (what might be called baroque difficulty), but more often from what is left out. Relativity Theory (viewed as a vehicle for cultural values, like works of art and literature) provides a notorious example. For many physicists, the initial difficulty of the Special Theory lay in the fact that Einstein found the nineteenth-century hypothesis of an ether ‘superfluous’, thus radically pruning physics of a laborious but comfortably familiar hypothesis. In all manifestations of the modernist breakthrough, thinking people missed those qualities or techniques on which they had customarily relied for meaning, such as single-point perspective in painting, tonality in music, neutral and uniform time in narrative, and unvarying temporal and spatial reference frames in physics.

Out of this fundamental value of epistemic trauma a number of cognate characteristics emerged. Modernism quickly developed an affinity to what seemed (when viewed from the tradition of realism) an addiction to gratuitous difficulty and distortion, either for their own sakes or for the sake of being avant-garde. In fact, discussions of modernism regularly equate it with the avant-garde; and while this equation ignores functional distinctions between the two terms, modernism’s commitment to being at the cutting edge, to being shocking and difficult, quickly became a major value. In early modernism, when Cézanne began to depart from single-point perspective in the interest of greater truth to our visual experience of Nature, when Henry James began to introduce ambiguities of motive intolerable to the realist tradition, or when Max Planck introduced energy quanta, the apparent distortions and difficulties, the elitist value of being avant-garde, was not a principal motive or effect. But in a very short period, by the time Picasso had re-represented the human figure in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Kafka had transformed his protagonist into an insect in The Metamorphosis and Einstein had employed obscure mathematics to model a finite but unbounded universe in his General Theory, the antagonistic relation of modernism to popular culture was irreversible: it gradually led to the almost complete bifurcation of serious and popular culture. ‘Modern [that is, modernist] art’, wrote Ortega y Gasset in 1925 (1968: 5), ‘will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is anti-popular’ (see Ortega y Gasset, J.).

Citing this article:
Vargish, Thomas. Epistemic trauma. Modernism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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