Marshall Berman’s book entitled ‘ All that is Solid Melts into Air’ is concerned with modernisation – the changes in society that saw the growth of the modern capitalist world – as well as modernism in other aspects such as art, literature and architecture, all of which are incorporated into Berman’s account. Berman distinguishes between three key terms: ‘ modernisation’ (the social changes that constantly take place around us), ‘ modernity’ (the way in which such changes are immediately lived and experienced) and ‘ modernism’ (the reflection and intellectual / artistic / literary / material / political / etc. epresentation of these changes. )
In the commentary that follows, I will assess Berman’s 1983 book, pointing out areas worthy of praise, while noting several important aspects which Berman has overlooked. Berman’s definition of modernity is: ‘ the vital experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils that is shared by men and women all over the world today’ (p15) whereas ‘ modernisation’ is the social processes that bring this idea into being. He believes men and women to be the subjects as well as the objects of modernisation who have the power to change the world that changes them.
Berman is optimistic that examining the modernity of past years is a way to transform the future. ‘ It may turn out, then, that going back can be a way to go forward: That remembering the modernisms of the nineteenth century can give us the vision and courage to create the modernisms of the twenty-first. ‘ Berman conceives modernity as a linear process of constant change of persistence and extension that keeps on reproducing itself. Berman later embarks on an ambitious effort to analyse the works of Goethe and Marx in order to further understand the spirit of modernity.
This is the context of his study of Faust and The Communist Manifesto. He then examines urban transformation through the literary works of Baudelaire, Pushkin, Gogol, Chernyshevsky, Biely and Mandelstam. Berman goes on to look at the career of engineer Robert Moses and its destructive effects on New York City, ending with a series of comments on contemporary urban blight and cultural renewal, an aspect of the book which I found to be particularly stimulating. Berman believes the ‘ modern’ dates back to 1825.
He believes there are 3 phases of modernity: 1- Early 1500s – late 1700s: A period of social unrest and civic disorder where people begin to experience modern life- The thirty years war and King Charles of England who was hanged, drawn and quartered, suggest social confusion in this period. 2- 1790’s: The Enlightenment and the French revolution in which the modern public comes to life 3- 1900s: Modernisation expands and reaches the whole world and ‘ the developing world culture of modernism achieves spectacular triumphs in art and thought. ‘ (P17)
Berman suggests in the book’s title that the solidarity of 19th century modernity (where he talks about Goeth and Marx) disperses into the air when we approach the twentieth-century society. Nothing is permanent in modernity and all aspects including art, ideals and country become new solids that immediately fracture and evaporate under pressure of another oncoming order. Although all of the above phases appear extremely well researched and clear-cut, I found it difficult to differentiate between each one and Berman does not make it clear where he believes each phase begins and ends, nor does he explain why in any great detail.
Ironically then, the seemingly ‘ solid’ analysis of nineteenth century modernity in which Berman considers Goethe and Marx eventually ‘ melts into air’ with his introduction into the examination of twentieth century modernity. I found this to be a weakness of the book. For example, as Berman concentrates and has extensive knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I expected clear dissimilar characteristics of each to be made, but he offers no such distinction.
Berman not only analyses the optimistic, revitalising aspects of modernity, but also discusses the negative issues it may generate. … modernity… is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration, and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish… ‘ (P15) In the midst of the socio-cultural context of the present, Berman sees going back to the future as the main solution, as already mentioned: ‘ In this bleak context, I want to bring the dynamic and dialectical modernism of the nineteenth century to life again’ (P35) Berman talks about the current urban problems towards the end of the book, addressing the contradictions of city life in the U. S. during the 1960’s and 1970’s using the example of New York City.
He examines the destruction of the old neighbourhood tenements and the rise of the new commercial districts within the city, giving importance to the socio-economic and aesthetic transformations that took place at this time. However he does not identify the positive ongoing transformations that are taking place in urban space and instead concentrates on the ‘ millions of blacks and Hispanics’, ‘ many of them… esperately poor, chronically unemployed, at once racial and economic outcasts… ‘ After reading ‘ All that is Solid Melts into Air,’ it was clear to me that although Berman paints a colourful picture of Marxism and modernity, he often leaves out vital components to modernist society such as class and more specifically, gender. His book is thought provoking and clarifying, especially for those who have difficulty coming to terms with the ever-changing post-modern society.
However Berman continually constructs dark and ambient visions of reality whist attempting to regain optimism and energy within modernity in order to create a more positive and structured outlook, therefore he often contradicts himself thus not entirely fulfilling the books purpose of achieving a far greater understanding of modernity, which often mystifies the reader. Although an enjoyable sociological study, ‘ All that is Solid Melts into Air’ does not make clear every aspect of modernity and is not the ‘ solid’ analysis of literature, architecture, and modern ways of living one would expect.