Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Death by Prefix? The Paradoxical Life of Modernist Studies

[ed. I think I have a headache. Can someone tell me if I do? (or don't?)]

Like many scholars of modernism, I’m often asked two questions: What is modernism? And why is modernist studies, it seems, all the rage right now? I don’t have a good, succinct answer to either question — and I’ve no doubt frustrated plenty of friends because of that — but the reasons why I don’t are pretty telling.

There’s a familiar response to the question of what modernism is — dense and difficult language, myth and allusion, formal experimentation, and so on — and I regularly use it when introducing the term to undergraduates. But this answer feels rather disingenuous: that sense of the term cohered and reigned only for a small, recent window of time in a history of “modernism” that dates back more than a millennium. Which is to say, unlike fields marked by the relatively neater boundaries of centuries, nations, or languages, modernist studies, for most of its roughly century-long academic history, has failed to form a consensus on the nature of its titular object. Every field loves to ponder its own shifting borders, but how would I feel if I asked a colleague in postcolonial literature or in African-American studies to sketch her field for me, and she responded, “Well, it’s complicated, so let me just fall back on what people more or less agreed on a half-century ago”?

And yet, this definitional uncertainty helps explain the thriving and transforming contemporary field that is typically called the New Modernist Studies, which has been documented, analyzed, and disparaged in a number of places by this point (for example, here, here, and here). What remains unresolved — at once exciting and haunting — is a central paradox in the field. Scan the program of any recent conference of the Modernist Studies Association, the titles of articles published in Modernism/modernity, or the monographs published in the field (at least a half-dozen presses have initiated series in modernist studies in the past decade, with more coming), and one will similarly find “modernism” endlessly modified by prefixes. From Transpacific to Mediterranean, Pragmatic to Revolting, Digital to Slapstick, hardly a region, concept, technology, category of being, or historical movement has been excluded as a possible type of modernism. No one could claim to know even half of the field at this point, much less a plausible totality. Donald Rumsfeld’s Orwellian phrase “known unknowns” echoes mercilessly as I try just to keep up with the publications in my own subfields (comparative and global) of modernist studies.

Why these expansions by way of proliferating prefixes? In part, it’s because of the robust dissatisfaction with that old, familiar notion of modernism. And in a way, the current climate has returned us to the historical moment many of us study — a moment when “modernism” meant everything and, potentially, nothing. In the first half of the 20th century, “modernism” pointed unevenly to a new mode of writing, to new appliances and technologies, and to the rebellious priests excommunicated by Pius X, who in 1910 made clergy swear an “Oath Against Modernism.” We have finally dismissed the myth that the figures we most often call “modernist” did not use that term. Rather, they didn’t use it consistently, or they found it already overused or insufficiently descriptive.

The original readers of Laura Riding and Robert Graves’s A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), one of the first major studies to consecrate the term “modernism” as a literary concept, no doubt were as bewildered as we are by the ubiquity of “modernism” across many spheres of culture. And Riding and Graves themselves were ambivalent about the term’s strictures and prospects. Indeed, as early as 1924, the Fugitive poet and future dean of New Criticism John Crowe Ransom lamented that no working poet could “escape” from the rigid doctrines of a modernism associated with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and F. S. Flint — that poets must write to their standards now or risk remaining unknown. And one of the primary critical figures in modernist history, Edmund Wilson, didn’t even use the term in his milestone study, Axel’s Castle (1931); he called it “symbolism” instead.

How did a term that meant so much — or, again, so little — come to single out a literary aesthetic found in selective (not all) works by figures like Eliot, Pound, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf? No single critic or book could claim responsibility. Instead, it was a series of successful anthologies and widely used syllabi that gained traction and exposure in the expanding college classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s that mostly delimited what is now the “old modernism.” In the 1980s, postmodernist critics pounced on this usefully rigid sense of “modernism” to name and describe the foundation of an elitist, often racist right-wing politics. Colleagues who have worked in this field since this time have told me chilling stories of the days when modernism was blacklisted and when no publisher, no search committee, no journal editor wanted to hear the term (unless perhaps prefaced by an obscenity).

The New Modernist Studies, which dates roughly from the mid-1990s, was born of the vigorous responses to these attacks. Modernism reinvented itself and expanded to include feminist, lowbrow, popular, ethnic, and other forms that had been derided at one point. But that did not obviate the fact that there was a good deal of truth in the postmodernist attacks. The political histories of figures like Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and D. H. Lawrence are littered with everything from pro-Mussolini radio broadcasts to ugly anti-Semitic rants to violent misogynistic fantasies. These old modernisms, however, were variously buried, repackaged, or dismissed as aberrant, leaving modernist scholars free to transform their field rapidly and immensely. The new modernisms, unhinged from defined temporal, geographical, and formal restrictions, started gobbling up new texts and new sites that other fields (Victorian literature, aestheticism, postmodernism) had once claimed. Scholars in adjacent fields pushed back, and once again, modernism responded: Gertrude Stein was both a modernist and a postmodernist. Problem solved.

And thus the paradox: The old “modernism” is still pragmatically and strategically valuable for the New Modernist Studies. To characterize modernism in the old, familiar way, even if convenient, is to buy into a host of assumptions that are now fully discredited: that modernity originated in a certain moment in European history, or that Charles Baudelaire founded a movement that had no other possible roots, or that formal innovation is the genuine marker of the “new” in literary history (even Eliot himself doubted that last one), and so on. Instead, there are hundreds of modernisms, and as long as the particular invocation of the term points to some time period, authors, site, or aesthetics once associated with the term “modernism,” no one doubts its validity. A colleague in the field recently remarked to me that “modernism” now has enough cachet and critical purchase that a formulaic, fill-in-the-blank title (_____ Modernism) is already more than half a step to a book contract.

Which is to say that while there is no consensus on what “modernism” means, the term carries significant conceptual and professional weight.

by Galye Rogers, LARB |  Read more:
Image: Ezra Pound