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Bad Modernisms.

Bad Modernisms. Eds. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006) vii + 365 pp.

Remember when modernism was bad? When modernist artists and works were understood to be "good" precisely insofar as they broke the rules and shattered the forms, shocked and mocked the bourgeoisie, resisted authority and practiced insubordination? "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my father, or my church": thus Stephen Dedalus, poster boy for modernism's famously bad manners, as well as for its more calculated, systematic and (some would say) heroic betrayals of the "old men's lies" that Ezra Pound saw as underwriting "an old bitch gone in the teeth,/ ... a botched civilization." Modernism, as Heather Love remarks in her essay for Bad Modernisms, "gave bad a good name" (19). But if you're old enough to remember that bad (or perhaps I should say bad boy) modernism, you're also likely to recall a later moment, centered in the early 1980s, when modernism went bad in a very different way: the critical turn, that is, when modernism's now-authorizedand-institutionalized face began to appear on wanted posters--"wanted" for anti-democratic cultural elitism and sexism; for fascist sympathies and neocolonialist cultural appropriation; for divorcing art from politics and massively resisting history--that proliferated in the hallways of English Departments with the rise of feminism, new historicism, and cultural studies. Readers of this journal may recollect a certain defensiveness about Woolf's fiction (how could one explain the fact that the author of A Room of One's Own wrote like them?) during this period; others will not soon forget the aura of embarrassment attendant upon one's admission to an interest in modernism at all. Modernism had at best become domesticated, transformed, as editors Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz remark in their introduction, from subversive "bad outsider to fartoo-good insider" (6); at worst its putative aesthetic virtues stood shamefully revealed as marks of bad faith and bad politics.

One of the many virtues of Bad Modernisms lies in its recognition--lucidly articulated by its editors; richly and variously explored by its contributors--that the potential goodness of badness and badness of goodness were as central to and muddled in modernism itself as they have been to and in our own subsequent critical revaluations of its histories. The point here is decidedly not to reestablish a heroically naughty modernism of recalcitrance and rebellion, or even, for that matter, to recommend an Adornian negative dialectic, a strategic modernism of engagement through withdrawal. Rather, instead of simply reasserting modernism's forgotten good badness or the value of its negativity, this collection works to expand our sense of the range and complexity of modernism's bad behaviors. It does so by attending not only to modernism's self-proclaimed non serviams, but also to its unacknowledged failures of art and nerve, of tact and feeling and attention. It does so also by re-examining writings (Wyndham Lewis's proto-fascist diatribes and The Sheik's soft-core porn; the purported quietism of "A Mark on the Wall" or supposed "self-Orientalizing minstrelsy" [244] of Bulosan's The Laughter of My Father), cultural forms (advertising, fashion, the movies, pulp fiction), and rhetorical modalities (cliche, manifesto, ethnic humor) that modernists and histories of modernism have tended to reject as irredeemably bad; and by employing a variety of reading practices that modernism's selfanointed defenders once unhesitatingly labeled heretical. The result is a book that contributes significantly to the new modernist studies by helping bring back to life modernism's historic provocations without sanctifying or embalming them, and without imposing on modernism the teleological demands of our own late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century political and social agendas. In these eleven energetic, interdisciplinary, and refreshingly unorthodox essays, "modernism," as the volume's editors note, "seems again to be naming something that can surprise and challenge, if not indeed profoundly unsettle" (6).

Take, for example, Monica Miller's rich unpacking of the matrix of good and bad and good-bad badnesses circulating through the figure of the black dandy in the Harlem Renaissance. If white dandyism provides an exemplary instance of "bad modernism" in its subversion of traditional gender binaries and sexual scripts, black dandyism--"modernism's other 'other'" (184)--was similarly disruptive but also "bad for black modernism as delimited by its architects in that it prevented the movement from defining blackness in a way that satisfied either its shepherds or future critics." Yet this troubling "lack of definition" ultimately, Miller insists, "saved Renaissance aesthetics from being too narrowly defined" (191). "What is 'good' about this dandy's 'badness' is that the figure's redefinition of blackness and modernism does not allow for either concept to be entirely recognizable" (200), a valorization of failure and in-definition that is echoed throughout this volume. Bob Dylan's famous line from "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"--"there's no success like failure"--came to mind repeatedly as I moved through Bad Modernisms. Heather Love's "Forced Exile: Walter Pater's Queer Modernism," which opens the volume, urges us "to rethink the image of modernist rebellion as heroic resistance and to bring out the strain of failure in all modernism" (25), and this approach not only illuminates Pater's "politics of refusal," but also invites a more general reexamination of key modernist tropes of alienation, exile and "the victim as hero" (30). Michael LeMahieu similarly reads Wittgenstein's inability in the Tractatus to "close off, reconcile, or circumscribe the competing perspectives it exemplifies" (88)--his failure to decide whether his text is a document of philosophical modernity or an instance of aesthetic modernism--as a kind of "badness" that ultimately underwrites a productive remapping of the space of ethics. Walkowitz's own essay, like Love's, works to uncover "anti-heroic impulses" within modernism that "help to shape alternative modes of political consciousness"--in this case by reconsidering the strategies of evasion and quietism, "the willingness to embrace uncommitted styles of attention," for which Woolf has so often been condemned (141-42). Walkowitz deftly shows how Woolf's bad narrative habits in Mrs. Dalloway--her refusal to frankly center her narrative on the hard realities of war--contests wartime thinking "by rejecting its models of attention," and by "not allowing violence to absorb, in the total attention violence demands, the partial attention that resists it" (138). If "aesthetic success in [Woolf's] terms often seems like political failure" (139), it's because "one must risk being bad--uncertain, distracted, and unsuccessful--in order to keep being good" (121).

The focus of these essays on modes of productive failure (as opposed to heroic resistance) is complemented and complicated by contributors' attention to other forms and figures of modernist badness. The black dandy, for example, is only one of the "bad characters" populating the modernist landscape charted in the volume. Wyndham Lewis, whose "particularly unsavory brand of modernism" has served for many critics as a symptom of "everything that was wrong with modernism--without any of its redeeming qualities" (44) here provides Martin Puchner with a locus for exploring the "defensive aggression" of what he calls "rear-guard modernism" and the "bad-mannered mode of speech" of its most salient form, the manifesto, a genre that "violated almost all values associated with ... modernism" even as it promoted it (61, 56, 49). Lisa Fluet focuses on pulp narrative's contract killer as a synecdoche for a "bad, recycled" "Hit-Man Modernism" (271) that both exemplifies and challenges Raymond Williams's well-known diagnosis of modernism gone bad, its "isolated, estranged images of alienation and loss" and "narrative discontinuities" now channeled into "the iconography of the commercials" and "the merely technical modes of advertising and the commercial drama" (292). Mao's intricate, canny argument shows how the odd couple of Lewis and W.H. Auden both alighted--outlandishly yet revealingly--on the contemporary anthropological figure of a transgendered, homosexual Siberian shaman in order to fashion a suggestively queered model for sustaining "the good badness of the critical intelligence" in modern society, "the principled dissent that had long been part of liberalism's self-definition" (228)

Some of the badnesses discerned here are the products of misinterpretation, bad (or "bad") readings, or failures of reception that resonate suggestively with the more positive failures of attention ascribed to Woolf by Walkowitz. Joshua Miller thus approaches a work often taken as an example of bad or failed modernism--Carlos Bulosan's The Laughter of My Father--as a manifestation of "an alternative modernism" (239) that, in responding specifically to US imperialism in the Philippines, relocates and pluralizes experiences of modernity in global contexts. Sianne Ngai adopts a deliberately (from the modernist point of view) "bad," counter-formalist critical strategy that reads Blonde Venus, not for the Sternbergian stylistic disruptions typically deployed to redeem Hollywood productions ideologically and aesthetically, but for its story--a story shown in the event to embody "an inverted homage to the Black Venus," Josephine Baker. Refusing modernism's "canonized style of interpreting aesthetic objects as well as of making them," Ngai argues that "a bad version of such interpretation might disclose new or previously unsuspected examples of such making" while stimulating new ways of thinking about "aesthetic modernism's institutional rigidification" (173). Ngai's motley, intermedial modernism moves easily between diverse cultural strata, technologies, and registers. And this capacious sense of modernism as a cultural constellation is replicated throughout Bad Modernisms, notably in the essay by Laura Frost, whose analysis of the ways in which the "cliched'" genre of the desert romance exemplified by E.M. Hull's The Sheik--reprinted, Frost reminds us, 108 times in the UK between 1919 and 1923, the acknowledged heyday of high modernism--influenced the "supposedly 'innovative' representations of eroticism and sexuality" in the modernist fictions of D.H. Lawrence is one of the volume's many pleasures (95, 98). Jesse Matz's concluding meditation on the fate and future of Impressionism weaves together several of the volume's most stimulating lines of inquiry, even as it recapitulates the multiple forms of badness so richly explored by his co-contributors. If Impressionism began, Matz notes, in good bad-boy style, which is to say "in subversive energy, all color and light, ... triumphant against the bourgeois, academic, lifeless norms of institutional culture," it soon went bad in another sense, enabling a "promiscuous superficiality" that would lead, in our own time, to "a world of Impressionism gone bad," a commercialized, indelibly bourgeois "culture of distraction and fakery" that epitomizes modernism's "notorious self-betrayal." Indeed, Matz asks, "what modernism has gone bad worse than Impressionism?" (300). Yet Matz, drawing on the "modernist advertisements" (321) of filmmaker Len Lye as well as on the history of modern painting from Monet to Cezanne and Braque, teases out another story, one in which Impressionism's badnesses--its weak or superficial or distracted modes of perception; its indifference and "systemic frazzle" (319); even, it may be, its very liability to co-optation--emerge as "an engaged mode of refusal," and "a continuance of the reverse co-optation through which modernism first violated the rules of perceptual management" (325-26).

Modernism isn't what it used to be, but is that such a bad thing? Bad Modernisms ought to help convince even veterans of the 1980s "crash" that the fading of modernism's once heroic bad-boy profile is more to be welcomed than lamented. Readers of this journal, long attuned to the disconnect between that profile and Virginia Woolf's less self-aggrandizing (if no less "bad") provocations, will welcome this collection, in which Woolf emerges as a key figure in a productively reconfigured modernism. Focused on modernism's less glamorous forms of bad behavior--inattention and distraction and evasion; self-doubt and irresolution; poor writing and flawed reading; cliche and nonsense; plain old silliness; lapses of judgment and tact; queernesses, one should add, of all kinds--Bad Modernisms testifies to the current vibrancy of modernist studies, even as it reminds us of modernism's still vital willingness to risk uncertainty and error and failure.

--David McWhirter, Texas A&M University-College Station
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Author:McWhirter, David
Publication:Woolf Studies Annual
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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