Modernism: Evolution of an Idea.
Modernism's Print Cultures, by Faye Hamill and Mark Hussey. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. 220 pages.
Modernism, Science, and Technology, by Mark S. Morrison. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. 180 pages.
The appearance of Bloomsbury's New Modernisms series marks a turning point in the study of modernism, a moment at which its discoveries and insights can be productively evaluated and reflected upon. Bloomsbury's series offers a range of introductions, guides, and handbooks--not manifestoes or polemics--to help students and scholars map the diverse perspectives and approaches that now make up the field. This dispassionate accounting of what has been accomplished in modernist studies over the past twenty or so years--in relation, of course, to the longer history of modernism itself--signals an important watershed: the "new" modernist studies is no longer primarily preoccupied with its own project of "making it new," and is now a well-established field. Of course we might read Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz's important 2008 PMLA article, "The New Modernist Studies," in a similar light--less a proclamation than a summary and assessment of the field as it stood at that time. That piece, written a decade ago, however, still performed the function of introducing an emergent field to scholars outside that field. Bloomsbury's series, I would argue, represents a new era: an era in which the field itself has already coalesced and in which overview, summaries, and assessments no longer need also serve as introductions to an emerging field.
"Well established" does not of course mean clearly defined or easy to describe: on the contrary, the field of modernist studies consists in large part of debates over how the field should be defined. On the one hand, recent attempts to rethink the term have made it harder than ever to pin down what "modernism" means, whether in stylistic, historical, or geographical terms. On the other hand, a residual sense of modernism seems to endure, so that most of us, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, know it when we see it: artworks from roughly the first half of the twentieth century that hit a range of familiar notes: stream of consciousness, opacity of form, manifestoes, the Men of 1914, the Women of the Left Bank, the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz age. This odd mix of overdetermined cliches on the one hand (think of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris) and open-ended, endlessly shifting and expanding categories on the other presents a challenge to anyone who wishes to understand what has actually been happening in modernist studies over the past few decades.
And indeed, much has been happening: scholars have been redefining the field, expanding it along geographical, chronological, and stylistic axes and making space for different voices, methodologies, and critical perspectives. They have worked to create a much broader and more racially, sexually, economically, and politically inclusive canon. A more precise and accurate rendering of the field, were such a thing possible, would thus require redefining contested terms and peeling back layers of myth, legend, and ideology. It would also require reimagining a cultural phenomenon--modernism--whose original incarnation is still potent enough to exert its pull on our cultural imagination. Telling the story of modernism is a complex historiographical project that also demands mastery of a discrete (but large, diverse, and constantly expanding) body of knowledge. It is both simpler and far more complicated than it seems.
One of the major challenges facing scholars of modernism is the many ways in which--as a discipline and as a culture--we are still breathing the air of modernist ideology ourselves. (1) I refer to modernism's celebration of revolution, rupture, and shock, its desire to jettison the past in favor of beginning afresh, its rapturous idealizations of heroic artist/critics whose adversarial stance vis-a-vis the culture and its institutions mark them as somehow freer or purer than the cultural and historical conditions of possibility from which they emerged. All of these tendencies--along with all of their political, aesthetic, and social implications--appear in multiple historical moments, but they come to a thundering crescendo during the modernist moment, and they continue to exert a powerful hold on us today.
Modernism's stark binaries between center and periphery, subversion and containment, rebellion and complacency, revolution and institution have also furnished us with some of our most durable critical, political, aesthetic, and historical truisms. How subversive energies become codified and institutionalized (and what is lost and gained through this process) is at once the story of modernism itself, and the story of the field of modernist studies, which has struggled since at least the era of Lionel Trilling with the problem of what it means to canonize rebellion. But not only would a fuller understanding of the field require a richer sense of the ongoing ideological influence of modernists like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound on modernist studies, it would also need to take into account later generations of charismatic thinkers such as Trilling, Irving Howe, or Roger Shattuck, who consolidated and canonized their own vision of modernism (along with the profession of literary criticism as we know it) at midcentury. Rediscovering the complexity and contentiousness of the movement as it emerged and responding to these two mutually reinforcing incarnations from the modernist and the midcentury moments is all the more difficult because these ideas are so fundamental to the self-understanding of our discipline. Indeed, the history of modernism's invention, canonization, and transformation could also be told as the history of literary studies as a field. As a result, sorting these questions out can sometimes seem a project better suited to the psychoanalyst's couch than to the literary historian's record.
Now for the good news: the Bloomsbury New Modernisms series is ably equipped to help us address these challenges. For scholars and students in the field, and those outside of it, who want to familiarize themselves with modernism as an ongoing set of problems, questions, and approaches, this collection of slim volumes (each about 200 pages long) will offer a clear-eyed and comprehensive introduction to many different facets of the new modernist studies, one that moves with authority and elegance among the tangled philosophical issues raised by the topic, its definition, and its central concepts. At the same time, it offers a richly informative survey of the field from a variety of angles.
The many incarnations of modernism over the course of the twentieth century is one story, among others, told by Sean Latham and Gayle Roger's introductory entry in the series, Modernism: Evolution of an Idea. As its title suggests, this book is primarily a historiographical project, although in the process of offering its history of the "idea" of modernism it covers a lot of important ground, introducing the reader to key figures of the modernist movement and to the story of modernism's changing legacy over the course of the past century. It is an elegant, lucid, and helpful introduction to the field of modernist studies. Yet--and to its very great credit--it does not shy away from the definitional problems I have described but weaves them into a clear articulation of the difficulties and contradictions at the heart of modernism as a project and as a field.
The book begins to historicize the established narrative of modernism with the claim that "there is no such thing as modernism--no singular definition capable of bringing order to the diverse multitude of creators, manifestoes, practices, and politics that have been variously constellated around this enigmatic term" (1). Having dispensed with the problem of offering a singular definition, Latham and Rogers turn in a different direction, explaining, "Our focus is on the formulation and reception of modernism--the ways in which its intellectual and cultural histories have been made" (3). The authors are careful to specify that their approach comes with its own constraints and limitations, namely that they will be examining the idea of modernism not just as it existed in its original form, but as it has been refracted and reflected by the critics, teachers, and artists who have built, destroyed, and rebuilt it over the past century.
Lest it seem that the book concerns itself only with a hall of critical mirrors, Latham and Rogers do acknowledge the ways in which modernism itself arose in response to new social, political, and economic developments. As they put it, "Something was happening.... The established conventions of realism, representation, and poetic form seemed to be failing in the face of new experiences, new audience, and new things" (11). Their story of canonization, popularization, invention, branding, public relations, and cultural capital (an approach very much in the spirit of the new modernist studies) calls attention to the many mediating factors that intervene between so-called historical conditions and forms of aesthetic expression, adding a layer of welcome complexity to their narrative of development. According to Latham and Rogers, "Amid this enormous expansion ... modernism becomes less a single tradition or a byword for difficulty than a prismatic way of describing all kinds of aesthetic responses to the turbulence of modernity" (15).
Because their history of modernism is significantly institutional and disciplinary, Latham and Rogers are able successfully to navigate the intellectual shoals of historical determinism and formal essentialism on which so many stories of modernism, from Edmund Wilson to Fredric Jameson, have depended. (2) To aid them in this undertaking, they organize the volume around two competing figures for modernism. The first of these is based on Joyce's "strandentwining cable," an imaginary umbilical cord Stephen Dedalus envisions as he strolls on the beach in the "Proteus" chapter of Ulysses. The second image is that of a plate filled with iron filings whose shapes change as a magnet is moved beneath it. This image, taken from Pound, captures "a plural ... array of patterns and shapes produced as different critical magnets are dragged through the heaped filings of the twentieth century (11). The idea is that the cable stands for the development of a tradition or canon that includes and excludes particular texts based on some fairly stable criteria mostly having to do with formal innovation. The iron filings, on the other hand, are intended to capture the many movements, ideologies, and interpretations that have followed in the wake of modernism, reshaping existing texts into new patterns and systems after the fact, suggesting that the canon itself is variable and placing its emphasis not on individual great texts but on organizing theories and visions.
Neither of these images is static or simple; in both cases change, motion, and transformation are built into the image itself. If this makes them hard to follow, or at times to feel a little bit tortured, this is probably because Latham and Rogers are using them not only to clarify competing visions of modernism but also to illustrate the complexity and the volatility of the problems they are describing. The difficulty of these images is also very much in the spirit of modernist thought, as is their tendency to metamorphose from one form to another: they function in the spirit of Pater's "hard, gemlike flame," and Marx's "All that is solid melts into air," arguably two of the founding metaphors of modernism. To make matters still more complex, the image of cables transforms itself into a third image of networks, which serves as the organizing metaphor for the book's final chapter.
Latham and Rogers use these images not just to capture competing visions of modernism but to organize the chapters of their book. The figures of the cable and the iron filings are useful insofar as the story they are telling is not a singular narrative of modernism's development but, rather, a series of competing narratives, each of which has been laid palimpsestically on top of the ones that came before. The chapters thus move chronologically, but they inevitably circle back on each other as new understandings, interpretations, and motives behind the competing visions of modernism are revealed.
In the first chapter, "The Emergence of Modernism," Latham and Rogers explain how aesthetic and creative ferment, change, and conflict were consolidated into a coherent term and movement by influential founding artists and theorists of modernism such as Pound, Eliot, T. E. Hulme, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Q.D. Leavis, and others during the first half of the twentieth century. The second chapter, "Consolidation," elaborates further on this process, examining the way modernism shifted from a set of affiliated artistic movements to an academic field of study. In this chapter, Latham and Rogers examine influential collections and essays by Irving Howe, Harry Levin, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, Lionel Trilling, and many others who were instrumental in creating modernism's midcentury incarnation, which, as I have already mentioned, is probably just as influential as the version created by the modernists themselves.
The third chapter, "Iron Filings," moves away from this story of consolidation and describes the ways in which, beyond the project of establishing a coherent modernist canon, another project was also underway, a project to acknowledge a wider (and in some cases) different array of aesthetic practices. Latham and Rogers tell us that "the question of what to do with all these other modern aesthetic and cultural practices--all these things that cannot be easily or only assimilated to the elevated tradition--gave way to alternative definitions of modernism" (104). They then go on to detail the ways in which the influence of feminist, Marxist, race-based, and postmodern criticism, among other approaches, transformed the understanding of modernism and expanded the notion of the sorts of texts that fell within the purview of modernist criticism, including "detective and science fiction genres, commercial graphic design and advertising, ... jazz, the blues, and Western swing, ... film, radio, and photography" (103). These approaches, they argue, helped to move once-overlooked authors such as Mina Loy, Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer to the very heart of the modernist canon.
The concluding chapter offers "an overview of the New Modernist Studies" that examines "the major nodes that now make a diffuse network of ideas, objects, texts, and approaches while also framing some of the most pressing questions now being asked about modernism" (161). Like the first chapter, this one does not provide a conclusive definition or explanation of modernism, nor does it promise to take a comprehensive measure of the field. Instead, it offers a handful of "capsule summaries" of books that have already appeared or are scheduled to appear in the New Modernisms series. These summaries, according to Latham and Rogers, "are meant ... to offer a broad survey of the field's current state" (161). They include Modernism's Print Cultures and Modernism, Science, and Technology (both included in this review). Other titles include Modernism, Sex, and Gender, Modernism in a Global Context, Modernism and the Law, and Modernism, War, and Violence, all of which have already appeared as additional volumes in the series. (Forthcoming titles include Modernism and Environments; Race and New Modernisms; and Modernism and Mass Media.)
This overview makes clear that the goal of the series, like the goal of its first volume, is not to offer a conclusive explanation of modernism as a term but, rather, to give a sense of the many vibrant and generative questions and approaches that currently make up the field of modernist studies. (3) Though each book is freestanding and can be taken as an introduction to its own particular approach to modernism, reading several of them simultaneously, as this review has given me the occasion to do, reveals some interesting features of the series worth noting. The first is that difficulties of definition seem far less pressing when specific critical questions or problems are foregrounded. It is instructive to see, for instance, how debates about modernism's periodization recede into the background when another subject, such as the history of print culture, takes center stage. It doesn't seem difficult for Faye Hamill and Mark Hussey to specify in Modernism's Print Cultures, for instance, that the period they are focused on "ranges from 1890 to 1945" and that "this includes the period (from the 1910s to the 1930s) that is most closely associated with high modernism" (7).
The second notable element that emerges is the importance of methodological and institutional questions to the new modernist project. Modernism's Print Cultures is an example of the way in which the efforts of the field include, but go beyond, the expansion of the canon, to question the basic assumptions of modernist (and other) ideologies. Modernism's Print Cultures, for instance, begins by questioning assumptions about the sorts of texts that are worthy of critical attention, and rejects the notion that artists and critics must write from a nonideological position, one located outside of the economic and cultural institutions in which modernist texts were produced and disseminated. While this approach to modernism does involve a widening of subject matter, what's really at stake is an expansion of reading practices and interpretative contexts, not just an expansion of the texts included in the canon.
Modernism's Print Cultures opens with a discussion of a long prose poem by Blaise Cendrars. The piece was published as a poster that could be folded into a pamphlet the size of an envelope, featuring the poem, a watercolor, and a map. The generic complexity and difficulty of categorizing this object--whether as a book, a periodical, a poster, or a broadside, makes it an ideal opening image for Modernism's Print Cultures. The book goes on to offer a fascinating overview of the interlocking history of modernist studies and the study of periodical culture, and of books as material objects. It closely examines the circulation of journals, magazines, and other forms of communication that moved between high and mass culture and sometimes bridged the distance between them. Hamill and Hussey inform--or possibly warn--the reader at the beginning of the volume that "This book is a guide to critical directions in the study of modernism's print cultures, and therefore, its 'primary' materials are, in effect, secondary texts" (7), including works of criticism, book and publishing history, periodical studies, and textual scholarship. But this makes the story they tell no less engaging as they move confidently and dynamically through a broad range of issues surrounding modernism and print culture--from the central role of journals in the New Negro Renaissance, to the role of advertisements in print culture, to debates over censorship, to the visual and bibliographic elements of modernist journals.
This volume does a particularly good job of emphasizing the linked fortunes of the new modernist studies and the study of print culture more broadly. Of course, "print was on the move throughout the modernist period" (3), a period in which the relationship among mass culture, advertising, and print culture changed dramatically and conclusively. But the hidden story of this volume concerns the mutual interdependence of modernist studies on the one hand and the study of print culture on the other. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine modernist studies as a field without considering the nearly immeasurable impact of textual studies, bibliography, print culture, and the sociology of texts, or without the reawakening of interest in the modernist little magazine and the revolutionary impact of increased access to these texts made possible by digitization and by scholarly studies like those by Robert Scholes, Patrick Collier, Adam McKible, and Suzanne Churchill, and many others discussed in this volume.
Hammill and Hussey make the additional point early in the volume that the modernists themselves were some of the first to consider print culture a worthwhile subject of consideration: "Modernist writers were profoundly concerned with and interested in the literary marketplace, many of them playing multiple roles in what Robert Darnton describes as the 'communication circuit' that 'runs from the author to the publisher, ... the printer, the shipper, and bookseller, and the reader'" (24). Because, as Hammill and Hussey claim, it is "possible to trace an almost continuous attention to the issues and questions addressed by the term print culture from the late nineteenth century ... to now" (24), this book, like the introductory volume, thus moves between a set of terms and ideas that emerge from modernist thinkers themselves and the subsequent variations on these ideas that have informed critical discussions of modernism in the years that followed.
Mark S. Morrison's Modernism, Science, and Technology, too, returns to ideas that were influential during modernism. Although this book also makes its debts to the new modernist studies very clear from the outset, its primary goal seems to be slightly different from the two books I have discussed above. Morrison seeks to rediscover a moment before C. P Snow's famous "two cultures" argument of 1959, and to reanimate the centrality of scientific and technological ideas to the development of modernism as an artistic and literary movement. This argument is very much in the spirit of Latham and Roger's "iron filings": placing scientific theories and developments at its forefront changes the story of modernism's development in fascinating ways. The context of the larger series takes some of the argumentative pressure off of Morrison; there's no need for him to pretend to be the first to consider this subject or to argue that previous critics have entirely overlooked its importance or to claim that he will offer conclusive answers about modernism based on this analysis. He is thus able to build an incredibly well-informed and wide-ranging case for the significance of this intellectual convergence and to illuminate new elements in some of modernism's most familiar (even hackneyed) figures and ideas: for instance, reading Pound's commitment to imagist principles as an embrace of scientific inquiry in response to the fuzzy spiritualism of symbolist poetry (6) or finding the invention of Marconi's wireless to be indispensable to the development of Marinetti's futurism (5).
Morrison's somewhat overwhelmingly expansive notion of "science and technology" comes through in a series of catalogs that seem to map the range, variety, and centrality of scientific innovation to the modernist moment. "This was the age," he tells us, "of the automobile, airplane, synthetic plastic, radio, film, neon sign, audio recording, mass-market tabloid, X-ray machine, cyclotron, skyscraper, tissue culture, and penicillin, but also of chemical warfare, machine guns, eugenics, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the electric chair." He invites us to imagine the familiar stories of innovation and transformation from this new angle, informing us that for instance "Victorian scientific paradigms that were undergoing an unsettled phase ... included thermodynamics, late classical ether physics, extradimensional geometries, and the birth of radiochemistry and what later became known as nuclear physics" (31). These catalogs will give a sense not only of how broadly the topics of this volume range but also of its concreteness, precision, and specificity. Morrison is quite adept at synthesizing an overwhelming number of discoveries outside the field of literature, and he is equally adept at explaining just how these developments resonated through the realms of culture, offering readings, for instance, of D. H. Lawrence's vitalism as a response to thermodynamic entropy (47), or Stein's experimental writing as a form of "neurophysiological science" (100), or the influence of X-ray devices on works by T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Duchamp (63).
The conceptual topics he covers in the introduction alone range from Kuhnian paradigm shifts to Bijker's technological frames, to Latour's influence on science studies. Chapters that follow are divided into "The Physical Sciences and Mathematics," "The Life Sciences," and "The Social Sciences," with a coda devoted to the disability studies movement as the most recent and significant development growing out of scientific and technological approaches to modernist literature. Morrison's confidence in dividing his topics as he does is impressive considering the dizzying amount of material he synthesizes in these three brief chapters and the number of ways in which it could have been presented. The range of scientific approaches he addresses includes (among others) quantum mechanics, optics, eugenics, radioactivity, sexology, vitalism, the neuron doctrine, and the subatomic world. At moments the enormity of the project seems to threaten to split the bounds of this rather modest volume and suggests the Borgesian catalog referenced by Foucault at the beginning of The Order of Things (1966).
Though this comparison is mostly humorous, there is certainly a Foucauldian element to much of the work in this series, in the sense that many of the historical questions that are being asked are also epistemological. We might understand the New Modernisms series to be implicitly posing the question of whether modernism can be read as an episteme in Foucault's sense and, if so, to what degree we are still living under the same epistemic regime as our modernist predecessors. If the intellectual challenges of this problem are made clear by the first book in the series, the other two books I have discussed each find their own multiple ways of measuring the distance, both intellectual and historical, between the modernist moment and our own.
The Bloomsbury series clearly engages with the complex questions and problems posed by the new modernist studies, attempting to represent the contours of a field that has been oversimplified and mischaracterized in recent criticism. Though I have not had the chance to read all the books in the series, I can speak with equal enthusiasm of Peter Kalliney's Modernism in a Global Context (2016), a book that manages very helpfully and deftly to merge postcolonial theory with theories of global and transnational literature. Addressing debates about world literature and reading modernism in a variety of global contexts, from Bandung to Afro-Caribbean modernism, the book encourages "a more uneasy, a more expansive understanding of what modernism does when it is on the move" (24). Taken as a whole, this series should make it harder for critics to fall into the sorts of oversimplifications and misunderstandings about modernism and modernist studies that have plagued the field since its earliest days. For scholars who wish to go beyond caricatures of modernist studies and to gain a sense of where it has grown and changed as a field, Bloomsbury's series will serve as an invaluable resource.
Lisi Schoenbach is associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she specializes in twentieth-century literature and philosophy, with a particular focus on modernism, pragmatism, and political theory. She is author of Pragmatic Modernism (2012) and is writing a second book titled "Institutionalism and the Fate of the Public University."
(1.) This claim is similar to Jerome McGann's in The Romantic Ideology that the study of the Romantics has been powerfully influenced by "an uncritical absorption in Romanticism's own self-representations" (1983: 1). I would argue that the internalized influence of modernist ideology is more wide-ranging and ubiquitous, extending beyond the study of modernism itself. I make this case at greater length in Pragmatic Modernism (2012).
(2.) Accounts of modernism have tended to go beyond the standard oscillation between formalism and historicism that characterizes literary criticism more generally, and to range into determinism. Influential critics of literary modernism including Irving Howe, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, and Roger Shattuck, for instance, characterized modernism largely in terms of its formal innovations and avant-garde breaks from literary tradition (for example, stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse, scandalous subject matter). Others, such as Peter Gay or Marshall Berman, have read modernism primarily as the inevitable response to various historical crises (for instance, the rapid spread of standardization and technology, imperialism, World War I, revolution). An institutional or more fully historicized interpretive framework helpfully mediates these charismatic but sometimes overly simple and deterministic views.
(3.) Another recently published volume, Laura Winkiel's Modernism: The Basics (2017), offers a much more succinct explanation better suited to undergraduate students. The volume incorporates many of the insights of the new modernist studies, offering a more inclusive and globalized overview of modernism, but without the sort of meta-reflection on the developments of the field that characterizes the Bloomsbury series.
Kalliney, Peter. 2016. Modernism in a Global Context. New York: Bloomsbury.
Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca Walkowitz. 2008. "The New Modernist Studies." PMLA 123, no. 3: 737-48.
McGann, Jerome. 1983. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schoenbach, Lisi. 2012. Pragmatic Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Winkiel, Laura. 2017. Modernism: The Basics. Oxford: Routledge.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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