May 12 2011

Modernism to Postmodernism 3

Published by Peter Schneck

Portrait of Picasso by Juan Gris

Portrait of Picasso by Juan Gris

Over the last sessions, we have been talking (somewhat relentlessly, I know) about the connection between the modernist artistic avantgardes in literature and painting (i.e. Pound, Eliot, Stein – Picasso, Kandinsky et al.) on the one hand, and the emergence of new models of perception, consciousness and psychology around 1900 (i.e. James, Bergson, Freud et. al.), on the other hand.

The reason behind this was to point out and make more obvious that modernism in the arts was as much an experimental as an explorative way of coming to terms with a new understanding of human cognitive and emotional experience – and particularly the way in which we are able to face, handle and master the inherent dynamics of modern reality. That is, there is indeed a method behind all this confusing newness in content, style and form which the modernists developed and propagated.

William James

William James

One of the concepts that in fact turned into a signature method of modernist writing is the ’stream of consciousness’ – or ’stream of thought, as William James originally called it. In one of his talks to teachers, James gave the following description of the stream:

It is the fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science. We have thus fields of consciousness,—that is the first general fact; and the second general fact is that the concrete fields are always complex. They contain sensations of our bodies and of the objects around us, memories of past experiences and thoughts of distant things, feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, desires and aversions, and other emotional conditions, together with determinations of the will, in every variety of permutation and combination.

In most of our concrete states of consciousness all these different classes of ingredients are found simultaneously present to some degree, though the relative proportion they bear to one another is very shifting. One state will seem to be composed of hardly anything but sensations, another of hardly anything but memories, etc. But around the sensation, if one consider carefully, there will always be some fringe of thought or will, and around the memory some margin or penumbra of emotion or sensation.

Using this description and our discussion of the concept in the lecture as a starting point, you are encouraged to answer the questions below. Read carefully and slowly. You may hand in your answers within the next ten days, so there is a bit more time to work on the issues than usual. If you want to get your answers graded for two exams, please try to answer all questions in full and indicate the double exam on your sheet. Please contact me immediately for any questions you might have (you may also enter them in the comment box below for the benefit of others).

  1. James speaks of the stream of consciousness, but also ‘waves’, ’states’ and ‘fields’ of consciousness – this seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? How would you explain this? What determines the stream character of consciousness, what makes it appear rather as a state or a field? How would you categorize or distinguish these different terms in regard to the inherently dynamic nature of consciousness?
  2. Gertrude Stein was not only a student of William James’, she also shared her interest in Jamesian psychology with Picasso. In what sense can we connect James’ understanding of the stream of consciousness with a painting of Picasso (for instance, the Portrait of Ambrose Vollard below)? And how can we connect this to Stein’s first and second portrait of Picasso (see your handout or the text file in StudIP)?
  3. Picasso's Portrait of Ambrose Vollard (1910)

    Picasso's Portrait of Ambrose Vollard (1910)

    Take one of the excerpts from Stein’s Tender Buttons and discuss them in regard to the quote from James. How is the stream of consciousness treated here in comparison and contrast  to Hemingway’s ‘Banal Story’ ?

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