Spotlight: Donato Loia

Spotlight: Donato Loia

In the Spotlight series of posts, we ask former attendees of the Genealogies of Modernity Summer Seminar questions about about their current work and its relation to the concerns of the Genealogies of Modernity project. Donato Loia is a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin and a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center for the Study of Modernism. He was awarded the Vivian L. Smith Foundation Fellowship and plans to work at the Menil Collection in the forthcoming academic year. His work has appeared on Mise-en-Scène. The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, Studies in Philosophy and Education, and is forthcoming on Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies and Athanor. His dissertation, tentatively titled "Beyond the Light: Visual Studies on the Senses of the Sacred in the Absence of God," triangulates themes of art, secularity, and religiosity in selected contemporary works of art.

1. What are the stakes for thinking about modernity now?

I believe that to respond to the question I should, first, provide a general overview of what I mean by “modernity.” For the meaning of the term is not self-evident. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1990), Habermas writes: “Modernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria by which it takes its orientation from the models supplied by another epoch; it has to create its normativity out of itself. Modernity sees itself cast back upon itself without any possibility of escape.” I consider this passage the best entry point to determine what “modernity” is about.

The standard way to read Habermas’s remark might relate his statement to the idea of the “self-sufficiency of the subject” the “self-sufficiency of an historical time,” its “originality,” capacity to “break with the tradition,” and other canonical ways of looking at “modernity.” It is clear today that such characterizations of modernity have started to age and have reached a quasi-mythological status.

Just to use few examples from my own field, the history of art, Harold Rosenberg in The Tradition of the New (1959) notices that the famous “modern break with tradition” had lasted long enough to create its own tradition. Moreover, if artists at the beginning of the twentieth century still rested on the romantic assumption that meaningful subject matter emanates from the individual, the art of Rauschenberg, Warhol, Krueger demonstrated the mythological status of the autonomous subject, or at least called that into question. But the discussion could be easily expanded beyond the artistic realm. For instance, if the subject is “self-sufficient” why does the subject have to rely so much on institutional apparatus like schools, university, technology, but also “existential” apparatus, like friendship? Without these apparatus the subject is completely at loss. We are structurally dependent on culture and social reality.

I believe that a more nuanced interpretation of Habermas’s remark should put the emphasis on what is not exhausted for modernity: the historical responsibility for cultural communities to identify their own sources of normativity vis-à-vis modern society itself. Now, the sources of normativity can also be inspired by a tradition; however, the tradition’s legitimacy as a source of normativity can be only discussed in relation to the present. For “modernity” there is no possible escape from the present.

2. Has thinking about genealogies of modernity since the seminar changed your approach to your work?

Alfred Barr’s genealogy from  Cubism and Abstract Art  (1936)

Alfred Barr’s genealogy from Cubism and Abstract Art (1936)

Genealogies are necessarily built on criteria of inclusion and exclusion. This can be useful for practical purposes—for instance, if a person is interested in creating his or her own genealogical family tree. It can be rather problematic as a theoretical method when applied to cultural objects and artifacts, as in the case of Alfred Barr’s famous genealogical tree of movements in Cubism and Abstract Art. Barr’s genealogical tree defined as much as limited the historical basis to construct the history of art between 1890 and 1935 around the ideas of formalism and autonomy of expression. Only the overcoming of that genealogical tree has, in more recent years, provided a more subtle, multifaceted, and plural view of early twentieth-century art. Any genealogical account should make manifest its own selecting principles, otherwise it risks becoming ideology masked as natural history.

[Editor’s Note: It’s worth noting that it’s precisely the non-European sources that are rubriced and formally excluded from the genealogy that Barr draws here, all the while noting their “influence.”]

For me, one of the major takeaways from the seminar was thinking about how every discipline thinks and creates its own “genealogy of modernity” through different chronologies, historical, and conceptual frameworks. “Modernity” does not necessarily mean the same in religious studies as it does in art history. Therefore, an all-encompassing definition of this term should be questionable from an academic perspective. At the same time, I believe that “modernity” is more than a mere category and the question of modernity cannot be reduced to a matter of simple definitions or to a querelle among academic disciplines.

3. What is the most unlikely historical "kinship" you have discovered?

It is not an “unlikely” historical kinship because the relationship between “Western Humanism and Religion” is not new, but I was not familiar with the work of Jacques Maritain. The idea that attracted me most to Maritain’s work is precisely that “humanism” does not have to be necessarily “antireligious.” However, I am also still thinking through exactly how Maritain’s work bears on my own research. Whether for personal reasons or because I’m still processing Maritain’s ideas, there is something deeply attractive about his work that I haven’t quite put my finger on yet. But it does seem to me that if his project must remain strictly Christian, this would be, in my opinion, a limit.

4. Whose work have you read recently that excited you?

I am slowly reading After Virtue (1981) by Alasdair MacIntyre, a genealogical account able to explain why the various concepts that inform our moral discourse (notions of the good, justice, and so on) were originally at home in larger totalities of theory and practice. MacIntyre is able to reveal the debris of  moral discourse in an exciting way even for a person who has little formal education in moral philosophy. I am inspired by MacIntyre’s work to question myself and the underlying assumptions of my arguments. That morality needs a teleological framework, an end, without which it would be unintelligible seem to be the starting point for a philosophy of the ought to be (dover-essere).

5. Have we ever been modern?

It depends on the meaning we give to the term “modernity.” If “modernity,” for example is an egalitarian project, we can say that, to a certain extent, we have started to become modern. But, the increased accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small segment of the world’s population and the shrinking of the middle class would seem to testify that the “modern” project has stopped or even reversed. In line with Habermas, I tend to think about “modernity” as a “process” and a “project,” not only or exclusively as an historical time. 

6. What is the most overrated example of modernity?

This is not necessarily an example, but certainly among modernity’s key categories: the autonomous subject. Simply a wrong idea. Its wrongness has been best illustrated by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Charles Taylor, among others. Another source, Maurizio Ferraris’s L’Imbecillità è una Cosa Seria (“Stupidity is a Serious Matter”) (2016), is a lively and accessible critique of the “self-sufficient subject” and wonderful overview of the weakness and insufficiency of the human being. At the same time, there is no need to radicalize the idea of a decentered subjectivity too much, as Lacan, Bataille, and, in general, much poststructuralism has done during the past few decades. Both maximalist theses—at one extreme, a completely inaccessible self and at the other, a fully autonomous self—do not pass any critical scrutiny or investigation. To a certain extent, they are both overrated examples of “modernity” and “postmodernity.”

7. If you could change one detail about the subject you are working on, what would it be?

My research lies at the intersection between art history, philosophy, and religious studies. I chiefly study Modern and Contemporary Art and my interdisciplinary approach combines philosophical speculations and visual studies with an emphasis on theories of the “secular” and the “sacred” and issues of “subjectivity.”

One of my academic ambitions is to avoid disciplinary isolation and preserve as much as possible a trans-disciplinary and trans-historical approach. That said, my work is still too much grounded in the Western canon. There is a need in my field to be broadly exposed to and develop a global sensitivity. By that I mean to develop a knowledge of global art, rethink the art historical canon, and move beyond Western categories. This is still an ongoing project for me.

I belong to a generation that has increasingly studied and worked abroad. Now, I am doing a Ph.D. in the United States. My future professional and personal life might bring me to other countries and not necessarily in the West. We do really live in a global village, and so our understanding must also follow suit.

8. In the summer seminar, we read several works that attempted to analyze generational differences. What, in your opinion, differentiates your generation of young scholars from the older generation?

Undoubtedly, the crisis of the humanities. The existence of the departments in the humanities cannot be taken for granted anymore. The academic system of the humanities is broken, but in the, perhaps too optimistic, words of Friedrich Hölderlin, “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The “saving power,” however, won’t grow by itself, but only from collective actions and from new worldviews that the humanities themselves must provide. This is the great challenge for our discipline today: to rethink our own disciplines in order to rethink the world we live in. The humanities remain crucial for our own times.

9. Which "tome" would you recommend to other graduate students in your field or others?

I’ve mentioned Habermas enough in this entry, so I’ll finish by recommending one of his works: The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. It’s an illuminating critique of any attempt to quarantine the project of modernity as an emancipatory project grounded in the self-determination of historical communities. It is a “genealogical” account that unmasks the critique of modernity that Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault, et similia have put in place, in order to reinvigorate the project of modernity itself. 


Global Genealogies of Modernity Recap

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