NOTES ON THE AESTHETIC OF THE HOUR


But because these things have been shifted, because the natural continuities within which they normally exist have been broken, and because they have now been arranged to transmit an unexpected message, we are made conscious of the arbitrariness of their continuous normal message. Their ideological covering or disguise, which fits them so well when they are in their proper place that it becomes indistinguishable from their appearances, is abruptly revealed for what it is. Appearances themselves are suddenly showing us how they deceive us.

-- John Berger, “The Political Uses of Photo-Montage.”

...the only sure fact is ceaseless flux….” -- Vida Dutton Scudder

The aesthetic of this magazine, no less than its content, was of crucial importance from the very first conversations Tony and I had about it. At the start, we knew that we didn’t want to produce yet another “church blog” and this meant that we would have to resist not only the predictable sermonizing of which we had grown so tired, but also the familiar stock images of cathedrals and sacred wares that typically adorned such publications. What’s more, since we established our editorial trajectory in the tradition of the Anglican Left as developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we were well aware of how easy it would be for our stylistic choices to suggest a boutique and reactionary nostalgia that would undermine our criticism. And so we drew visual inspiration from sources as wide-ranging as Art Nouveau, the DIY punk zines of the 80s and 90s, obscure film posters from Eastern Europe in the 60s, the Vienna Secession, and the impeccable austerity of the midcentury book covers put out by McGraw-Hill. Our intent was that all of these references would converge in order to present a conscious modernism in the best sense of the word.


But the modernist aesthetic that pervades our pages is not so separable from the content as to be merely a “style” that we happen to like (though we do have a shameless affection for it). Our whole project is one of recovery -- both of aesthetics and of thought. The figures that we consider our greatest influences were thoroughly modernist in their methods -- this much is clear. But most are at least a century in the past and can seem distantly removed from our present context. Their books are long out of print and contemporary secondary literature is scarce to non-existent. Between us and them, there is something like a chasm, and not just in history, but in the very consciousness of our church. They are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant -- and the fact that we acquire so much of their material from random pdf scans in the public domain proves the point. Again, our project is one of recovery.


But what does it mean to recover modernism? The mere suggestion of such a project is at risk of a basic contradiction. If, as Marshall Berman wrote, “to be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air,’” [1] then we are very much still in modernity. Where then is this vantage point supposed to be located from which modernism could be recovered? Granted, the artistic movement of modernism is generally considered to be something that has already run its course, having since been succeeded by something else. And, as already mentioned, the intellectual movement we draw from most directly is likewise mostly consigned to the past. There is thus an added risk of indulging in mere antiquarianism; a presumption of indifference that allows one to look back on the past with nostalgic curiosity.


Fredric Jameson describes this risk with penetrating insight in his distinction between pastiche and parody. He says:


Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech, in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic. (emphasis his) [2]

That last line is key: pastiche presupposes that what it imitates is no longer a present reality, and thus that it makes no contribution to the construction of the present reality as it is or as it could be. The detachment from the past ironically obscures the contingency of the present, which is why pastiche is so indicative of both the culture of late capitalism and, oddly enough, the aesthetics of reaction. Change depends upon contingency, and “...in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” [3] Any project of recovery such as ours must somehow overcome this challenge.


When I think about the present reality of the Episcopal Church, what stands out in particular is exactly this kind of pastiche. We are at our own End of History, it seems, and I’m not just talking about our terminal decline. Consider the various “church parties” that historically determined the local idiosyncrasies of liturgy and devotion that were radically neutralized by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. One can see an analogy between the sincerity of the old rivalries between Anglo-Catholics and the Low-Church crowd and the “ulterior motive” that Jameson identifies in parody: not only did each side satirize the other, but they did so out of the “latent feeling that...something normal” existed against which both they and their rivals could be defined. But now, long after the revolution of the Liturgical Movement, that “latent feeling” is all but gone. The impressive minimalism of our current Prayer Book, however commendable, has inadvertently produced a kind of stasis in the consciousness of our church; and with it, a corresponding “disappearance of a sense of history” [4] that, for Jameson, defines the late capitalist condition. And this holds for both the aesthetics of our liturgy and the state of our intellectual life. After all, what is Weird Anglican Twitter if not an ironic celebration of this pastiche? We don’t so much inhabit an identifiable present as what is rather a supposedly neutral realm that is beyond history itself. And, to be clear, this is just as much the case for those who fetishize the return to some imagined Real Anglicanism™ as it is for those who would endlessly improvise the liturgy to keep up with their solipsism. Both presuppose an evacuated present in which we are fundamentally disinterested spectators who only become invested by an act of preference.


In spite of these challenges, I would suggest that what we are recovering at The Hour is itself part of the reason that this magazine is capable of overcoming these challenges. We are out to recover a specific kind of modernism -- the modernism of the Anglican Left -- and the fact that we have to recover it at all says more about the false presumptions of our present moment than it does about its supposed loss to the past. Those we consider our heroes -- Vida Dutton Scudder, Percy Dearmer, Stewart Headlam, et al -- looked out on a world in which all that was solid was melting into air… and it’s still melting. That world, the world imposed by capitalism, is the “something normal” with which we can compare ourselves. And with regard to our aesthetic, it’s far from being an exercise in pastiche simply because it references the past. Which brings us back to the quote from the inimitable John Berger at the beginning of this essay.


In context, Berger is analyzing the work of the German artist John Heartfield, known for his use of photomontage to make visual art that was explicitly anti-fascist. But Berger proceeds to describe the way in which the political statement of his work was somehow embedded in the very medium of photomontage itself. Like our intent with The Hour, the form in which Heartfield presented his message was not separable from the message, as though merely incidental, but rather preceded it and made it possible. By “shifting” things around, by breaking the supposedly “natural continuities” between things as we normally experience them, photomontage forfeits its claim to realism and representation in order to depict a truer realism altogether. It embraces the arbitrary in order to reveal the arbitrary. And in this sense, photomontage is inconceivable except under capitalism and within Walter Benjamin’s “age of mechanical reproduction.” In short, when all that is solid melts into air, art can only proceed by demonstrating that such is the case.


Coincidentally enough, Berger was writing elsewhere about Benjamin when he said that “the antiquarian and the revolutionary can have two things in common: their rejection of the present as given and their awareness that history has allotted them a task.” [5] To the extent that it’s possible to be both antiquarian and revolutionary, I’d like to think that these words, along with Berger’s analysis of Heartfield’s photomontage, get at something important in our project of recovery at The Hour. There is obviously “the rejection of the present as given” which inspired Heartfield’s anti-fascist art and also inspires us to produce this magazine in the manner that we do. But a mere rejection of the present is not enough; by itself, it lacks a sense of history and the task that accompanies it. Our heroes never ascended to the pretenses of universal significance in the eyes of those who came after them. They soon became inescapably confined to the particular times and places in which they lived and thought -- and thus to obscurity. The same can be said for many of the inspirations behind the aesthetic of The Hour. But it is precisely their obscurity that affords us with the possibility of a fresh and radical recovery. Because who let them become obscure in the first place?


When we cropped that picture of Vida Dutton Scudder and placed it alongside disparate text and colors, we were effectively displaying our whole project in a visual depiction: we can only access someone like her through the fragmented and arbitrary means of digital reproduction, so we might as well be honest about it. But once we re-publish her likeness and work in The Hour, we find that it is presented anew. Contra Jameson’s pastiche, innovation all of the sudden is possible, because the people and the styles that we are imitating are no longer dead. They speak again, in whatever way is possible in this haphazard little operation, with a voice that is now confined, inescapably, to our particular time and place. Which is true of every voice. With them as our comrades, the continuities that were thought to have been broken have been restored, but for the specific task that has been allotted to us: the task of recovery and revolution.



Caleb Roberts

Ponca City, Oklahoma



[1] Marshall Berman. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, 15.

[2] Fredric Jameson. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, 5.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] John Berger. Landscapes: John Berger on Art, 56.

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