Racheal Fest — What Will Modernism Be?

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Claggett Wilson. Flower of Death--The Bursting of a Heavy Shell--Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. c. 1919.

by Racheal Fest

This essay has been peer-reviewed by the b2o editorial collective. 

The absence of imagination had itself to be imagined.

— Wallace Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things”

US academics have expanded “modernism.” In a founding PMLA article, Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz (2008) gather under the rubric “The New Modernist Studies” (NMS) a range of contemporary scholarly activities they argue expand both modernism’s canon and the methods scholars employ when they examine it. More recently, Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers (2015) consolidate these practices and give them a history in Modernism: The Evolution of an Idea. As a look at these documents of self-presentation reveals, scholars loosely affiliated with NMS often imagine their academic work opposes from the left contemporary forces that produce inequality in the US and beyond. This essay reviews these documents and asks whether or not the expansionist methods the New Modernist Studies endorses can fulfill the political desires its practitioners share. It takes up a version of the self-reflexive project Raymond Williams urged upon a previous generation of oppositional academics. “[C]ultural theory,” Williams wrote in 1986, “which takes all other cultural production as its appropriate material, cannot exempt itself from the most rigorous examination of its own social and historical situations and formations, or from a connected analysis of its assumptions, propositions, methods, and effects” (Williams [1986] 1989, 163). Williams encouraged critics, scholars, and historians of culture who believed they carried out radical work to train their field’s critical resources upon their own activities.

The New Modernist Studies deserves attention of this kind not only because its practitioners claim they have transformed the study of early-twentieth-century literary and cultural texts. NMS also typifies some of the guiding methods, values, and goals that animate contemporary literary studies across subfields. Because the study of literature in US universities emerged at once alongside and by way of the poems and novels we associate with modernism, NMS’s practitioners perform again for the present what has become a familiar scholarly gesture. To reflect upon the nature and value of modernism, critical histories of the term indicate, has been to reflect upon—and to make a case for one view of—the nature and value of academic and critical literary activity itself.[1] Although critics and scholars devoted primarily to this period no longer lead the profession, modernists share with others across subfields (and perhaps, disciplines) the hope that US academic activity might have broader social and political effects. Many also share the sense that a primary way to produce desired effects is to expand canons and revise conservative methods previous generations of literary critics established. If these common assumptions sometimes serve, rather than counter, the state and market interests that perpetuate contemporary inequality across economic and identity categories, as I suggest in what follows they may, the field might embrace alternative approaches across areas of specialization.[2] A troubling gulf separates the progress narratives left academics proliferate for a privileged audience of peers and students inside the US university from the narratives of increasing inequality that today pervade other domains of life in the US and beyond.[3] Recognizing this gulf might encourage oppositional critics to think beyond the self-regulating and self-justifying habits of professional life.

The New Modernist Studies

The New Modernist Studies, according to Mao and Walkowitz (2008), describes as “modernist” an increasingly broad set of materials. Over “the past decade or two,” they explain, “all period-centered areas of literary scholarship have broadened in scope,” and so “modernist literary scholarship” has likewise expanded in “temporal, spatial, and vertical directions” (737). Along a “temporal” axis, such scholars as Susan Stanford Friedman extend modernism’s reach beyond the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[4] Jahan Ramazani and others associated with a “transnational turn” (744) attempt to “make modernism less Eurocentric by including or focusing on literary production outside Western Europe” (739). Still others—those who expand scholarship along society and culture’s “vertical” axes—no longer understand modernism as “a movement by and for a certain kind of high (cultured mandarins) as against a certain kind of low” (738). These scholars examine “reportage,” “propaganda,” and “news” alongside artworks and objects of mass culture (746).[5]

Mao and Walkowitz suggest these diverse practices together constitute a common oppositional project. The New Modernist Studies aims to “disrupt” and alter the conservative methods for organizing and evaluating literary texts that dominated US literary studies in the past (738). When Mao and Walkowitz celebrate monographs that emphasize “modernism’s entanglement . . . with . . . feminism, socialism, nationalism, and other programs of social change” (737) or colleagues who “encounter[r] with fresh eyes and ears” artworks “by members of marginalized social groups” (738), they indicate powerful desires for social, political, and economic equality, at home and abroad, drive the disciplinary transformations NMS sanctions.

As some of the major studies Mao and Walkowitz cite make clear, many NMS scholars hope their expansive activities will serve broader left agendas of this kind not only within the discipline of literary studies, but also, outside of the university. A moment in Jahan Ramazani’s acclaimed study, A Transnational Poetics (2009), exemplifies this desire. Ramazani gives new expression to the anti-nationalist and anti-colonial dreams such modernist writers as Claude McKay, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon first voiced when he describes what motivates his book:

I write from within the early twenty-first-century US academy, when the most consequential nationalism in the world is American, when assumptions about civilizational differences sometimes underwrite political discourse and even projections of US military forces abroad. Under these circumstances . . . the usefulness of . . . pluralizing and creolizing our models of culture and citizenship, should not be underestimated. . . . A nuanced picture of cross-national and cross-civilizational fusion and friction is badly needed today, and denationalized disciplines in the humanities may help provide it, however limited their extra-institutional reach. (48–49)

Ramazani hopes his scholarship contributes to vital efforts contemporary state violence requires of those who would combat it. He wants to counter imperial logics that devalue difference across the globe and in so doing license the US state to ruthlessly pursue its own interests. Literary scholars, he argues, might serve this project for equality by expanding, diversifying, and “denationalizing” their own disciplines inside US universities. This moving call for political change represents NMS’s determination to produce from inside of literary studies the new ways of thinking and being contemporary conditions demand.

At the same time, however, Ramazani registers an anxiety that today pervades both the New Modernist Studies and literary studies in general. Ramazani is confident increasingly plural “models of culture and citizenship,” such as those he finds in the poems of the past and present, can counter the ways of thinking he believes perpetuate global inequities. And yet, he wonders whether or not he and other academics can finally contribute to this “extra-institutional” project when they revise disciplinary practices. When Ramazani emphasizes his position “within the early-twenty-first-century US academy”—he works inside a department (University of Virginia’s Department of English) and within one or more subfields (“modernist” and “postcolonial” poetry) of an already specialized area of study (literary studies)—he does so in order to at once identify his sphere of influence and to express doubts about the final significance of the activities he carries out within it. He speaks passionately for a disciplinary change his political commitments inspire, but he also worries about the restricted reach of the change he proposes.

If we take seriously this consummate anxiety—and the urgency of the social and economic inequalities critics want to redress demands we do—we might pick up where Ramazani leaves off and investigate its sources more fully. To do so, I turn now to Modernism: The Evolution of an Idea, NMS’s longest and most ambitious document of self-presentation. Latham and Rogers’s book at once introduces the series, “New Modernisms,” which the authors edit for Bloomsbury’s academic imprint, and tells a story about professional progress that culminates in the New Modernist Studies. It develops an extended version of the narrative of expansion Mao and Walkowitz first sketched and fills in the academic history necessary to understand it. I believe a critical reading of this history, which tracks alongside NMS’s celebrated expansion a tandem movement of contraction, helps explain literary studies’ broader disquiet.

What “Modernism” Was and Is

Modernism: The Evolution of an Idea is the most recent contribution to the special genre of articles and monographs academics have dedicated to defining modernism.[6] It also gives an overview of this genre. The book describes and organizes the twentieth century’s many accounts of modernism before endorsing in conclusion the New Modernist Studies’ expanded vision of it. The writers display deep and wide expertise as they move nimbly over more than a century’s worth of fraught material. They offer students and colleagues a thorough overview of the debates that have constituted the field they call “modernist studies.”

A new version of the genre’s definitional question—first posed by Harry Levin (1960) in the essay “What Was Modernism?”—guides the book. In their introduction and conclusion, Latham and Rogers ask: “What is modernism?” (1). Posing the question this way prepares them to develop a response importantly different from those previous critics generated. “Modernism” is no longer a proper noun, as it was for Levin’s generation, so readers know right away the authors will not try to describe a period’s dominant style and make big claims about Western life based upon it. By asking what modernism is, Latham and Rogers remind readers the term shares with all such constructions its perpetually unfinished character, and critics will always have to define it anew to serve present interests. They thus break with an earlier generation of critics Maurice Beebe (1974) typifies when he extends to readers mourning “the passing of the greatest literary age since the Renaissance” this small comfort: “we can now define Modernism with confidence that we shall not have to keep adjusting our definition in order to accommodate new visions and values” (1076).

In order to answer their question anew for twenty-first century readers—as Latham and Rogers do in their fourth and final chapter on the New Modernist Studies—the authors tell us first what modernism used to be. They begin with the term’s emergence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At first, they explain, “modernism” circulated widely, freely, and polemically among “writers, artists, and thinkers around the world,” all of whom “believed that something was happening, that the established conventions of realism, representation, and poetic form seemed to be failing in the face of new experiences, new audiences, and new things” (8). Usual suspects T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and others argued in this period over modern art’s nature and value, in part, Latham and Rogers emphasize, as a way to secure a legacy for their own experimental works.

Latham and Rogers next describe what we might understand to be the original contraction upon which their narrative of expansion depends. In chapter two, “Consolidation,” academics step in to settle artists’ charged, vital, and international quarrels. By the mid-twentieth century, the authors explain, the so-called New Critics moved modernism’s artworks out of the “bohemian garrets and ateliers” from which they had emerged and installed them in “college classrooms and student anthologies” (19). Borrowing a figure from Joyce, Latham and Rogers say this generation of critics understood modernism to be “a ‘strandentwining cable’ that weaves together a distinct group of writers and artists around shared aesthetic practices” (7). The New Critics and their kin, in other words, revered an exclusionary canon of difficult, formally sophisticated, and willfully apolitical literary works (mostly) white European and American men composed. In so doing, they “silenc[ed] the voices of artists marginalized by gender, race, sexuality, and geography” (207).

“Iron Filings,” Latham and Rogers’s third chapter (named for a figure they take from Pound), maps the slow demise of this conservative vision. The authors explain how critics writing in the 1970s and 1980s—Edward W. Said, Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and others populate their account—first challenged from the left the modernist canon and its attendant sense of art’s autonomy. The chapter glosses work by “feminists,” “Marxists,” “black modernists,” and “postmodernists” (103–49). These groups, Latham and Rogers argue, began “to move modernism away from the relative autonomy of aesthetic difficulty and toward a broader engagement with political and social issues that inhere within an increasingly global modernity” (14). Scholars and critics came to examine diverse texts and develop worldly and historical views of art. Latham and Rogers laud these efforts and find in them the origins for the work the New Modernist Studies advances.[7] These earlier oppositional efforts do not satisfy them, however. This generation, they argue, still focused too often upon the virtues of difficult, formally experimental texts elites composed, failed to privilege works for “identitarian” reasons (8), or promulgated esoteric theories of language with dubious claims to legitimacy (14).

Enter the New Modernist Studies. This loosely affiliated movement, Latham and Rogers explain in their final chapter, emerged in the 1990s to overcome these failures and complete the oppositional project. NMS of course does so by expanding modernism’s materials along the spatial, temporal, and vertical axes Mao and Walkowitz name. Contemporary scholars let speak, on syllabi and in academic journals, those diverse voices literary studies once silenced. They devote increased attention to “women’s experiences of modernity” (161), promote “new awareness of the multiple ways in which homosexuality and queerness defined and constituted many of the works we now call ‘modernist’” (163), and treat race as a vital “part of a larger network of forces, practices, and identities” (168). As part of the same effort to displace elite texts, NMS makes new archives available to period specialists. It “attempt[s] to synthesize rather than to bracket or isolate forms of cultural expression across multiple media and throughout the world” (149–50). Examining a range of media forms, NMS scholars believe, unseats literature as an exclusive activity and affirms that other texts deserve critical attention. NMS scholars also continue to explore art’s many entanglements with history’s forces.

When Latham and Rogers ask themselves one last time the book’s guiding question—“what is modernism?”—they answer it in a way they believe does justice to the radical openness these expanded practices affirm. They leave readers with this “desultory, if nevertheless provocative answer: ‘We don’t know’” (206). The New Modernist Studies, they say, accepts that “there is, finally, no right way to define modernism, just as there is finally no right way to carve up the rich multiplicity of human expression” (207–8). Because the New Modernist Studies is neither a movement nor a method, but rather “the collective work of thousands of scholars,” it generates conclusions that have been and are likely to be in the future “ultimately incommensurable” (149). The book’s final Whitmanian gesture accepts these contradictions in order to applaud expansion itself as a final good. NMS dispenses with the canon, the period container, and the category of the literary as identifiable features of the object it investigates. In so doing, contemporary scholars believe they fulfill a narrative of advancement earlier critics set in motion, but could not complete. According to the New Modernist Studies, fundamental indeterminacy itself constitutes a decisive victory for the left.

This is a happy story. US academics have today completed a project decades in the making, and the left has at last triumphed inside humanities departments. And yet, as canons, periods, and materials have expanded inside US literary studies, the same narrative of inclusion and progress has not unfolded outside the university, as the 2016 US election made clear. If NMS’s practitioners hope the transformations for which they work within their field can contribute to broader political, social, and economic projects for equality, the radical divergence of these two chronologies might provoke oppositional scholars to examine anew the conviction that indeterminacy is itself a self-evident and absolute good. (This is not to suggest literary studies produced, or alone might have prevented, current emergencies. The profession’s progressive victory narrative simply sounds an eccentric note against the right’s rise.)

A figure Latham and Rogers select to represent the New Modernist Studies helps us identify one possible source for this distressing incongruity and thus points the way to alternative projects. In their final chapter, the authors describe the new core exhibition Catherine Grenier curated for Paris’s Centre Pompidou in 2013. Under Grenier’s direction, they write, the Pompidou has traded its “canonical and almost exclusively Eurocentric understanding of modernism”—and the modes of display conventional to it—for a new logic of exhibition:

Crucially, the museum abandons a narrative of development and opts instead simply to display as diverse an array of materials on the walls as it can. Picassos rub shoulders with architectural models from Brazil, Japanese prints, and paintings by the Moroccan artist Farid Belkahia—all placed against wallpaper made from hundreds of little magazines. (150–51)

This exhibition style, Latham and Rogers believe, represents something essential about the current state of their field. It signals “we are in an ‘interrogatory’ moment that invites us to ask anew about the range, constitution, and value of modernism” (151). A viewer standing before this display, in other words, stands in the figural space the contemporary modernist scholar occupies.

This figure should be familiar to expert readers of modern discourses. A genealogy of artists, critics, and philosophers proliferated versions of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Marx and Nietzsche give two of the most famous accounts[8]). When Latham and Rogers invoke it here, they remind readers contemporary US academics confront under their own peculiar circumstances the prototypical dilemma “modern” minds face. The scholar stands before his materials as Walter Benjamin’s ([1940] 1968) “angel” stands before history’s ruins or as Wallace Stevens’s ([1942] 1997b) “Man on the Dump” straddles culture’s dross. To be “modern,” figures of this kind suggest, is to be aware one is a historical being that creates a future out of a past by evaluating materials in the present. It is also to face perpetually the crushing problems proper to this condition, among them, the knowledge that whatever sense one makes of the past will itself one day end up on history’s junk heap.

The figure Benjamin invents to exemplify this dilemma, the “angel of history,” differs from the cheerful twenty-first-century modernist Latham and Rogers find in the museum, gazing raptly at the walls. The contrast is instructive. In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin’s angel, a trope for the radical or oppositional historian of culture, experiences the modern subject’s constituting crisis. He looks back upon a past that fills his entire perceptual field, a past he perceives as a “pile of debris” that “grows skyward” (257). As he gazes upon history’s ruins, he experiences a deep and awful longing. He wants nothing more than to “stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed” (257–58). Confronted with a disorganized mass of cultural relics that overwhelms him, the radical historian must decide what to do with these materials in order to serve present needs. He wants desperately to make sense of, and in so doing redeem for the present, the violent and destructive chaos of human activity we call history.

Tragically, though, a twofold danger frustrates the oppositional historian’s efforts. He knows, first, that the objects of the past that appear before him, many of which other historians regard as evidence of progress, do not enter his field of attention untouched by powerful interests. On the contrary, the same conditions of brutal inequality he hopes to oppose produce and pass along the “cultural treasures” others believe signal advancement (256). The historian therefore regards with suspicion both privileged works and the means by which they are “transmitted from one owner to another” (256). He believes that “even the dead will not be safe” from ruling interests, so he tries to wrest from them both revered and disdained objects (255).

At the same time as the radical historian struggles to protect the dead, he also struggles to protect himself. While the angel attempts to recover out of the past resources for the present, a “storm irresistibly propels” him “into the future to which his back is turned” (258). The angel cannot easily reinterpret or redeem the ruins because, catastrophically, he is enmeshed himself within the very history he wants to grasp and transform. Just as cruel interests produce, organize, and preserve history’s materials for their own purposes, so too do present conflicts and conditions always over-determine the radical historian’s work. As Benjamin puts it, the “same threat hangs over both [the content of the tradition and its receivers]: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes” (255). (This is in part why Benjamin imagines only a messianic figure, who stops time, can complete the revolutionary historian’s effort.[9])

As Latham and Rogers’s version of this figure indicates, the contemporary scholar of modernism faces with satisfaction the conditions the angel meets with horror and yearning. This is in part because, by its own account, the New Modernist Studies believes it has fulfilled Benjamin’s charge to protect the dead from ruling interests. While Latham and Rogers are critical of Theodor Adorno and those friends of Benjamin’s who “effectively helped build the modernist canon and affirmed its terms,” they are grateful to Benjamin because he “offered a set of tools and perspectives for undoing that work” (106–7). The New Modernist Studies believes it has secured, in the figurative space of the institution the museum signifies, what Benjamin’s angel desperately wanted—time and venue to stay and awaken the dead, to recover and let sound out of the past’s ruinous violence excluded songs.

If the New Modernist Studies protects the dead from ruling interests, however, it does not protect itself. NMS does not recognize, as Benjamin insists oppositional critics and scholars must, that it faces the same danger as do its objects. As the New Modernist Studies fulfills Latham and Rogers’s disciplinary progress narrative of expansion, it also completes the book’s corresponding narrative of contraction. The story about modernism’s enlargement, Latham and Rogers explicitly say, is also a story about its total “institutionalization and professionalization” (134). While some artists and critics in the early twentieth century “conceptualized [modernism] as a site of resistance to modernity’s regulatory and routinizing practices,” Latham and Rogers write, modernism has by 2015 “become part of an institutional system” (15). Today, modernism is, among other things, “an institutionalized profession, self-regulating and fitted somewhat uncomfortably between the nineteenth century and the always-moving present” (207). NMS finds “its strongest support and articulations in the institutions of academia: conferences, journals, scholarly organizations, and course catalogs” (156). The profession, in other words, with its self-directed procedures for formal training, publication, and credentialing, furnishes the domain within which NMS’s progress narrative can register as meaningful.

Attention to the contraction upon which expansion depends reveals a profound contradiction legitimates the New Modernist Studies. As scholars have worked to extend modernism’s materials and to abandon dated claims about art’s independence from political and economic forces, they have at the same time embraced the apparent autonomy the profession seems to tender those (increasingly few) humanities academics universities employ. (Latham and Rogers [2015] note the number of tenure-track positions for specialists in modernism US universities advertise has declined in recent years [157]). The profession creates a seemingly sovereign space in which a fortunate few can freely play over an extended set of materials.

Inside this apparently secure and exclusive domain, the fundamental indeterminacy Latham and Rogers hail as itself an achievement for the left performs another function entirely. Undirected expansion turns out to be a condition for the possibility of professional activity in the present. “Modernist studies,” Latham and Rogers explain, “has been strengthened by the lack of resolution over what exactly modernism is. A perpetual ‘definitional crisis’ has been a boon, in other words, to the wide-ranging debates about the field’s nature, boundaries, and contents” (151). This permanent emergency enables academics to produce scholarship an audience of like-minded period specialists will value. The authors celebrate the remarkable volume of discourse academics continue to publish out of the field’s authorizing crisis: “Even in the troubled world of academic publishing, studies of modernism, anthologies of modernist texts, introductions to the movement, essay collections on modernism and its formation, and other such texts have flourished since the mid-1990s, far outpacing the analogous publications in the 1960s and 1970s that helped entrench the field in universities” (156). The New Modernist Studies finally presents itself as an interminable (and profitable) set of classificatory squabbles elites with common aims perpetuate, but need not resolve, inside protected institutions.

This insular vision of US intellectual activity is not exactly new, and its consequences are not newly dangerous. In the well-known essay “Reflections on American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism,” Edward W. Said (1983) warned literary critics that the so-called “culture wars” of the 1970s and 1980s might not produce the outcomes across culture and society rival factions on the right and left desired.[10] Drawing upon Antonio Gramsci’s prison writings, Said (1983) argued universities, as institutions located within “civil society,” cannot furnish a protected vantage point from which critics on the left might attack state and market interests (175). The concept of “culture,” as Raymond Williams (1983) has demonstrated, emerged in tandem with and as an instrument of the nation-state. Therefore, Said argues, a critic “acting entirely” within the traditionally restricted humanist “domain” of the “literary specialist” does not destroy, but rather “confirms the culture and the society enforcing those restrictions” (175). This “confirmation,” Said writes, “acts to strengthen the civil and political societies whose fabric is culture itself” (175). When academics conceive of literary criticism as an adversarial activity one can pursue within an autonomous professional space, then, culture’s indissoluble relationship to power ensures that activity paradoxically reinforces “the whole enterprise of the State” (175). The autonomous view of literary studies NMS propagates is an updated version of the one Said challenges.[11]

Benjamin’s fable suggests oppositional scholars and critics who want to promote contemporary change should not be satisfied with this limited view of intellectual activity. To renew a vision of modernism responsive to contemporary inequality, scholars would have to expand more than their visions of the past. They would also have to expand their views of the present.[12] An expansion of this kind would multiply modernist studies’ materials along two new horizons. In addition to past artworks, modernist studies would explicitly consider, first, how ruling interests produce inequality in the present, and second, how its own relationship to those interests influences its activity. A disciplinary program such as NMS would have to begin with and attend to the logics, structures, and institutions that contribute to ongoing inequality, violence, and injustice, not only inside the discipline, but also more broadly, and then ask how its specialized activities might best transform these. Because liberating voices inside elite spaces has not countered inequalities the consequences of which those excluded from those spaces feel most acutely, literary studies might now begin with its expanded materials and ask anew what, more specifically, scholars might do with them.

If these expanded practices guided the field’s historical work, modernist studies might be better positioned to pose and respond to its constituting question—what is modernism? Right now, the field’s leading experts do not believe they need to resolve among themselves answers to it. Perhaps this is because the question is not today an urgent one for radical or progressive movements, or worse, perhaps ruling interests have already seized the question in its moment of danger. We might ask then, not what modernism is or was, but instead what modernism would have to be for it to matter again what it is. How might we look anew at modernism in a way that will best serve our oppositional desires in the present so that we might shape the more equitable futures we want? What vision of modernism can help us best respond to our world? What will modernism be?

What “Modernism” Might Be

Because Benjamin encourages us to take a more expansive view of the conditions that produce contemporary inequality both within and outside of the university when we pose enormous questions of this kind, I want to develop one tentative response by adopting the approach he recommends. After the financial collapse of 2008, many critics of arts and culture writing from the left have come to use the word “neoliberalism” to describe the forces that produce inequality today in the US and beyond.[13] The term has its strengths and limitations. It is simultaneously capacious and specific, so it can name both contemporary economic and political conditions and the popular ways of thinking that fabricate them. At the same time, it often circulates too capaciously. Philosopher of economics Philip Mirowski (2013) reproaches left intellectuals, for instance, who “bandy about attributions of ‘neoliberalism’ as a portmanteau term of abuse when discussing grand phenomena often lumped together under the terminology of ‘globalization’ and ‘financialization’ and ‘governmentality’” (29). In an attempt to avoid this practice, I want to define this abstraction more precisely before I consider how it might help us reevaluate NMS’s progress narrative and develop a revised sense of what modernism might need to be. To do so, I rely upon the more particular sense of the word Mirowski (2013) offers in his recent account of the financial crisis and its aftermath, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. Because Mirowski places at the center of his definition a view of epistemology he argues helps produce contemporary inequality, his account is of special interest to those who hope academic activities might counter ruling forces.

For Mirowski (2013), neoliberalism is both a “program” right-wing intellectuals and elites operating across a network of public and private institutions developed over the course of the twentieth century (29) and a “worldview [that] has sunk its roots deep into everyday life, almost to the point of passing as the ‘ideology of no ideology’” (28). His bracingly critical and deeply historical book-length account of this program and worldview includes the familiar tenets we most often associate with the term. Neoliberalism, Mirowski explains, insists “market society must be treated as a ‘natural’ and inexorable state of mankind” (55); it “redefine[s] the shape and functions of the state” to better serve market interests (56); it regards “inequality of economic resources and political rights not as an unfortunate by-product of capitalism, but as a necessary functional characteristic of [an] ideal market system” (63); it maintains “corporations can do no wrong” (64); and so on. This program produces inequalities that cut across economic and identity categories. It sanctions the strong domestic police state activists hold responsible for the mass incarceration and frequent extra-judicial killings of African-American men, for instance (Mirowski 65–66).[14]

Mirowski argues the specific “epistemological commitments” that ensured this program’s ascendency continue to guarantee its future, even in the wake of the devastating global crisis that should have delegitimized it (333). In service of the view that markets best organize human life, Mirowski argues, elites “deploy ignorance as a political tool” (12). He offers this interpretation of the role ignorance plays in economist and neoliberal pioneer Friedrich Hayek’s worldview:

For Hayek, the conscious attempt to conceive of the nature of public interest is the ultimate hubris, and to concoct strategies to achieve it is to fall into Original Sin. True organic solidarity can obtain only when everyone believes (correctly or not) they are just following their own selfish idiosyncratic ends, or perhaps don’t have any clear idea whatsoever of what they are doing, when in fact they are busily (re)producing beneficent evolutionary regularities beyond their ken and imagination. Thus, ignorance promotes social order, or as he said, “knowledge and ignorance are relative concepts.” (81) 

Because Hayek and those who share his views believe markets establish a transcendentally sanctioned order human reason, imagination, and will can only complicate and destroy, Mirowski argues they “strive to preserve and promote doubt and ignorance,” as many economists unwittingly did after 2008 (81). Motivated by this view of knowledge’s nature and value, recent policies have started to eliminate or weaken such knowledge producing institutions as the university by “put[ting] them on commercial footing” (82).[15] Doing so undercuts the critical, theoretical, and imaginative activities in which the humanities (and, just as vitally, the sciences[16]) conventionally offer training. These activities now seem, from this popular perspective, deleterious to omnipotent economic systems, and therefore, to human life. Policies of this kind deny “that it is even possible to speak truth to power, or that one can rationally plan social goals and their attainment” (Mirowski 82).

At the same time, and paradoxically, Mirowski argues elites themselves have relied over the course of the twentieth century upon precisely those modes of knowledge production, theoretical planning, critical rigor, and imagination they denounce in order to construct market-friendly policies and to build cultures of consent around their notions of freedom, human life, and education. Friedman, Hayek, George Stigler, and others associated with the influential and international Mont Pèlerin Society cultivated robust, diffuse, and persistent networks for pursuing creative and epistemological activity inside think tanks, universities, corporations, and state institutions (37-38). As a tactic for consolidating power, neoliberal policies strategically deny opponents access to those resources they utilize to gain and safeguard influence (83).

This epistemological paradigm, experts in modernism will recognize, imperils Benjamin’s figure. The very historical self-awareness writers and artists working in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries associated with being “modern,” in other words, today threatens to disappear. The idea that we might understand and evaluate present political and economic conditions and invent together ways to transform them is under pressure. While US and European elites continue to deploy such terms as “modernization” and “modernity” in what Fredric Jameson (2002) calls “a fundamental political discursive struggle” to guarantee free-market capitalism seems reality’s natural telos (9), they also tactically foreclose certain so-called “modern” ways of thinking others might use to resist current realities. As Mirowski argues, contemporary discourses in part shore up power by denying above all that human activity—be it political, imaginative, or intelligent—can help shape better futures.

A range of practices inside knowledge-producing institutions such as the university contribute to this popular view. US economics, for instance, leaves historical circumstances out of its models, as Thomas Piketty (2014) argues (573–74), or psychology joins with evolutionary biology to prove timeless drives motivate men to purchase luxury vehicles (Sundie et al. 2010).[17] Scholars of culture might counter these tactics from within literary studies if we imagine we are in conversation, not only with our colleagues and our field’s bygone giants, but also with other producers of knowledge across epistemological institutions.[18] Work of this kind would complement interdisciplinary research contemporary scholars already pursue—Latham and Rogers emphasize an “interdisciplinary foundation” grounds the New Modernist Studies (168)—but it would also differ importantly from it. In addition to adopting approaches other fields generate, as many interdisciplinary projects now do, literary studies might challenge the epistemological assumptions that license inequality and violence across fields and identify instead the alternate views of those creative, imaginative, and intelligent human activities neoliberalism attempts to monopolize and conceal that humanities traditions hold out to us.

Some such views, of course, contribute to transcendental worldviews new versions of which continue to foster inequality. Scholars therefore would not be able to return to the romantic or classically humanist ways of thinking about art theorists of the posthuman warn us are dangerously outmoded.[19] Rather, critics might recover and defend, before they disappear, literary visions of the tandem powers and limits of human activity historically conceived, in Benjamin’s sense. Professional readers of modernist texts are uniquely suited to contribute to projects of this kind because late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers and artists conceived in increasingly secular, material, and historical ways precisely those creative and imaginative capabilities popular discourses currently deny.[20]

I turn in conclusion to one such conception. Over the course of a long career, Wallace Stevens developed in verse and prose a potent vision of the capabilities and limitations of human imagination. I want to conclude with Stevens because the demise of the canon NMS achieves—a necessary and vital destruction—enables us to look anew not only at previously excluded materials. It also invites us to see in new ways those now liberated from their advantaged places within a hierarchy Raymond Williams (1987) worried had captured imagination’s radical potential. Because many of us share the sense that lesser known works recently recovered (or, as in the case of the heretofore unknown Claude McKay novel a graduate student at Columbia University found in the archives, discovered[21]) deserve more robust attention, I want to demonstrate how the alternative mode of expansion I am proposing can also help us see previously favored figures in newly apposite ways. (As a tradition of African American writing that moves from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine emphasizes, violent hierarchies also disfigure, though differently, those who claim a place at the top.[22]) The field’s pervasive view of Stevens has long been over-determined by such popular misreadings of his poems and essays as those Harold Bloom published in the 1970s.[23] Bloom misrepresents Stevens by insisting he adheres to the willfully ahistorical, autonomous, and unworldly understanding of art Bloom is one of the last US critics to prefer.

Stevens offers one version of his vision of imagination in a poem he composed on the eve of the Second World War, “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas.” The poem gives an early sense of what later works—most famously, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction and “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”—elaborate more fully, but it has the virtue, for my purposes, of lovingly antagonizing the same institutional audience I have just suggested literary studies might imagine for itself. “Extracts” assembles scraps taken from lectures and notes a speaker addresses to an audience with a stake in epistemological questions.

The poem’s wry title, as usual, opens onto a subject that turns out to be deadly serious. In the first section, Stevens’s speaker establishes before an academic audience of bearded “Messieurs” a dichotomy readers of Stevens will recognize is fundamental to his project. The speaker contrasts a “wrinkled ros[e]” made of “paper” (227) with “the blood-rose living in its smell” (228). He entreats his audience to consider the relationship between the two categories of being for which these flowers stand, categories which go elsewhere in Stevens’s oeuvre by the familiar names “imagination” and “reality.” At first, the speaker seems melancholy as he remarks the differences between the blooms. The paper rose is “false” and it is “dust,” even if it makes for us “brilliant” sounds (228). The blood-rose might be “silent,” but it is vibrant, pungent, and alive in the “sun and rain” (228).

Immediately, though, we realize Stevens does not establish this difference in order to privilege plant over paper, or reality over imagination, and his elegy gives way to affirmation. Ours, he tells the academy, “is an artificial world,” and the “rose of / Paper is of the nature of its world” (228). What we might call reality—the “sea,” the “mountains,” and the “sky”—is “so many written words” (228). We cannot, then, experience a world of necessity unmediated by or independent of the language we use to describe and know it, because this language shapes our perceptions of what we encounter. We must therefore accept that “the false and the true are one” (228).

For Stevens, who here differs from such contemporaries as Eliot (a villain in the poem), understanding the interdependence of these two categories need not engender melancholy. The very notion that we can know the blood-rose, or the real, without exercising our human faculties seems to Stevens a dangerous fantasy, one he sees emerge out of transcendental traditions. (This essay’s epigraph formulates most simply this insight.) “The rainy rose belongs / To naked men, to women naked as rain,” and we have never truly been these men and women (228). “Where,” the speaker asks, “is that summer warm enough to walk / . . . Beyond the knowledge of nakedness, as part / Of reality, beyond the knowledge of what / Is real, part of a land beyond the mind?” (228). This rhetorical question suggests humans never could access the paradise of ignorance Christian traditions project into the species’ distant past. This is not because we sinners once traded for knowledge’s paltry spoils the immortality ignorance guaranteed. It is rather because the difficult environments we inhabit on earth—cold, poisonous, dirty—require finite, self-aware beings to know them, and change them, and change ourselves to suit them. In order to do so, the speaker makes clear, we have relied upon what the paper rose represents: intelligence and imagination.

Stevens’s speaker thus asks the academy to renounce any fiction that requires its acolytes cleave epistemological and creative human activity from “reality” and its imagined fulfillments. He entreats his interlocutors to repudiate promises that ignorance can produce a paradise of the real. As the sections that follow demonstrate, Stevens has in mind Plato’s idealism, monarchy’s divine right, and the old world’s monotheisms, systems that make the same seductive promises contemporary “free-market fundamentalism” does (Krugman 2010). Stevens at once challenges these monumental metaphysical systems and suggests we attempt to better understand the character and purpose of the human faculties by which we invented them, faculties without which we can neither know, nor make, reality.

The final section of “Extracts” models such an attempt. Here is the speaker’s closing plea to the institution of fine ideas:

If earth dissolves

            Its evil after death, it dissolves it while

            We live. Thence come the final chants, the chants

            Of the brooder seeking the acutest end

            Of speech: to pierce the heart’s residuum

            And there to find music for a single line,

            Equal to memory, one line in which

            The vital music formulates the words.

 

Behold the men in helmets borne on steel,

Discolored, how they are going to defeat. (233-34)

Stevens concludes the poem with a careful vision of the tandem possibilities and limitations of human creative power. Earth, here a figure for the conditions of necessity the constraints of time and space produce, “dissolves evil” when death erases, and does not oblige an everlasting soul to harbor forever, life’s accumulated injuries. If we accept our own finitude in this way—“Be tranquil in your wounds,” Stevens (after Whitman) bids us (229)—we can turn our attention to the earthly powers we do possess, powers that help us “dissolve evil . . . while we live.” These are our “final chants,” the songs, stories, and ideas we make out of the conditions of mortality we cannot transcend. We compose and perfect these chants, not only because we are intelligent, brooding over what words will satisfy the mind, but also because we are sensuous. Sounds please us. When we hear “the vital music,” we know we have found the material for beliefs that “pierce,” and thereby shape, us (234).

Yet, even as the poem rises in the end to this fever pitch of human celebration, its final chant leaves us with the brutal image of soldiers “going to defeat.” This concluding volta serves a composite function. It warns us, as Stevens (1997) will again in the coda to Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, that the songs of belief and knowledge we invent can stir us to violence. (“How gladly with proper words the soldier dies, / If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech,” the Notes concludes [352]). In so doing, Stevens undercuts the good/evil dichotomy he has developed and emphasizes we can use our saving faculties to produce the same pain they can alleviate. The final couplet also leaves us with an image of precisely that from which the poem suggests we cannot turn away. Our chants comfort us while we live, but we must keep before us our own mortality in order to truly understand what we are and can do. This tempered conclusion at once affirms human creative power and admits, with humility, our profound and irreducible limitations. Stevens neither elevates to divine status intelligence and imagination, as some romantics did, nor denies these faculties influence our lives on earth, as do some contemporary discourses.

This vision cautions us to remain wary of explanations that promise an unknowable set of forces that operate beyond our control can best organize our lives and insists instead that humans are historical beings. Within limits, in other words, we shape out of the past, by way of our creative and critical activities, both the selves we are and the worlds we know. By affirming this vision (which Stevens is only one among many modernists, canonical and marginal, to leave us), and by sharpening it against those views that oppose it, we can seize at the moment it threatens to disappear a historical sense of ourselves. When we privilege this historical view of the human, we need not nostalgically return to and affirm the destructive and arrogant humanism that long licensed the West’s colonial violence and initiated environmental devastation. Rather, views such as Stevens’s can help us pursue in revitalized ways the increasingly material and historical search for self-understanding modernist genealogies value. Because a posthuman view of the species would still have to be able to explain the species’ historical activities, writers who describe these seem as important as ever.

As Benjamin’s vision of the angel warns, oppositional criticism cannot be programmatic, so reading Stevens this way offers no final, reproducible answer to this essay’s title question. It is merely one attempt to mobilize in the face of the conditions that produce inequality today the resources of the past. Because the New Modernist Studies is satisfied simply to expand its store of past materials, it does not encourage scholars to open out of modernism’s discourses specific and identifiable ways of thinking the left might rely upon when it tries to oppose from within the university the forces that produce social and economic disparity. Indeterminacy ensures NMS can continue as an influential, autonomous, and relatively lucrative institutional force, in part because it does not encourage critics to oppose power. Its foundational indeterminacy (“we don’t know”) seems to complement and mirror, rather than to contest, the broader attitude toward epistemological and creative human activity upon which ruling interests strategically insist. When elite discourses attempt to control and conceal the critical and creative practices humanities disciplines previously cultivated, academic trends that do not value these practices can come to suit elite interests.

To ameliorate these shortcomings, contemporary scholars need not necessarily flee the university or contritely devote themselves to public outreach projects. All institutional work is not identical. Mirowski’s epistemological reading of contemporary inequality suggests one of the most oppositional acts a scholar or critic can today perform is to insist—from inside and across the creative, critical, and knowledge-producing fields currently under attack—that historical activity is ongoing and vital.

 

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———. 2015. Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time. New York: Columbia University Press.

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———. 2008. “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3: 737–48.

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———. 2000. “Presidential Address 1999: Humanism and Heroism.” PMLA 115, no. 3: 285–91.

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———. (1987) 1989. “When Was Modernism?” in Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, 31–35.

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Epigraph taken from Wallace Stevens ([1955] 1997).

Notes 

[1] For a range of representative instances, see Robbins (1985), “Modernism and Professionalism: the Case of William Carlos Williams”; Williams ([1987] 1989), “When Was Modernism?”; Stanford Friedman (2001), “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism”; Jameson (2002), A Singular Modernity: Essays on the Ontology of the Present; and Josipovici (2010), Whatever Happened to Modernism?

[2] A number of critics have challenged the New Modernist Studies and its assumptions from various perspectives. See Wicke (2001), “Appreciation, Depreciation: Modernism’s Speculative Bubble”; Jameson (2002); Brzezinski (2011), “The New Modernist Studies: What’s Left of Political Formalism?”; Altieri (2012), “How the ‘New Modernist Studies’ Fails the Old Modernism”; Howarth (2012), “Autonomous and Heteronomous in Modernist Form: From Romantic Image to the New Modernist Studies.”

[3] In the US, for instance, inequality is today pervasive across categories of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Piketty (2014) compares rates of income disparity in the US in the early 2010s to those “in France and Britain during the Ancien Regime” (263). A 2010–11 survey indicates “the top decile own 72 percent of America’s wealth” (257). Capehart (2015) tracks recent instances of race violence in the US and the emergence of activist counter-movements. The United States Bureau of Labor (2016) reports US “women working full time only make about 79% of what men earn,” indicating one ongoing gender disparity liberal feminist movements often target.

[4] Friedman’s (2015) book, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time, pursues this “expansive” tendency to the limits of its logic. Friedman argues “modernism” might describe all “aesthetic movements or specific instances that innovatively engage with the specific modernities of their space/time/culture, particularly . . . those whose forms as well as content push against or reinvent inherited conventions” (190). She suggests critics might consider modernist such figures as the sixth-century Chinese poet Du Fu, whose formal innovations responded to changing political and economic conditions under the Tang Dynasty.

[5] See Churchill (2006) and Mao and Walkowitz, eds. (2006).

[6] For key works in this definitional genre, see Levin (1960), “What Was Modernism?”; Maurice Beebe (1974), “What Modernism Was”; Williams ([1987] 1989), “When Was Modernism?”; Friedman (2001), “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism”; Josipovici (2010), What Ever Happened to Modernism?

[7] When Latham and Rogers (2015) rely upon a language of “networks” as a way to explain art’s place in the “world,” for instance, they indicate Edward W. Said is one important influence for NMS (149). Said (1983) encouraged critics with radical ambitions to scrutinize any “art-for-art’s-sake theory” that insists “the world of culture and aesthetic production subsists on its own, away from the encroachments of the State and authority” and to study instead the “network” of “affiliation” that “enables a text to maintain itself as a text” (169, 174).

[8] Marx ([1852] 2004) describes historical consciousness and its challenges this way: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (15). A few years later, Nietzsche ([1876] 1997) writes: A “human being … cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past: however far and fast he may run, this chain runs with him” (61). See Jauss ([1970] 2005) for a critical etymology of the term “modern.” Jauss traces the different modes of historical consciousness it has named over the course of Western history.

[9] See Paul A. Bové (2010), “Misprisions of Utopia: Messianism, Apocalypse, and Allegory,” for a challenge to the utopian, messianic element fundamental to Benjamin’s vision of history.

[10] Said (1983) characterizes his moment—acerbically—this way: “Indeed, what distinguishes the present situation is, on the one hand, a greater isolation than ever before in recent American cultural history of the literary critics from the major intellectual, political, moral, and ethical issues of the day and, on the other hand, a rhetoric, a pose, a posture (let us at last be candid) claiming not so much to represent as to be the afflictions entailed by true adversarial politics. A visitor from another world would surely be perplexed were he to overhear a so-called old critic calling the new critics dangerous. What, this visitor would ask, are they dangers to? The state? The mind? Authority?” (160).

[11] Said’s later work responds explicitly to these transformations. See, for instance, Said (1993; 2000; 2004).

[12] US academics specializing in Victorian literature and culture have recently called for “presentist” approaches. See V21 Collective (2016).

[13] Critics regularly rely upon the vision of neoliberalism anthropologist David Harvey (2005) develops in his rigorous and accessible A Brief History of Neoliberalism. The term has a long history, as Harvey demonstrates, but its popularity as an explanatory cipher for current political and economic conditions among intellectuals and activists who are not specialists in economics increased after 2008.

[14] For a timeline of recent events, see Capehart (2015).

[15] For an early account of the transformations corporate interests have inaugurated within the university, see Readings (1997).

[16] The same ways of thinking are transforming disciplinary paradigms in the social and natural sciences. See Anderson (2008).

[17] Sundie et al. (2010) claim to prove “conspicuous consumption is driven by men who are following a lower investment (vs. higher investment) mating strategy and is triggered specifically by short-term (vs. long-term) mating motives” (1).

[18] During the “culture wars,” conservative humanists opposed critics on the left who wanted to expand the canon and privilege politics. Although this conservative position has virtually disappeared within humanities departments, contemporary scholars continue to claim as their primary antagonists the New Critics and the deconstructionists, figures from literary studies’ past. It remains vital to reflect upon professional practices so that our methods serve the projects we value—and again, historical self-consciousness teaches us this labor will be perpetual—but literary critics might better accomplish this if we cultivate simultaneously a more critical view of our discipline within a system of other disciplines, many of which endorse and promulgate views of the human and of history radically different from those many experts in culture often sanction.

[19] A number of complementary and overlapping discourses put pressure on the category of the “human” as a means of pursuing a radical or progressive politics for democracy, liberty, and equality. These include the “posthumanist” projects we associate with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and their inheritors, which attempt to destroy transcendental and ontotheological humanisms, and “posthuman” projects we associate with critics such as Donna Harraway, N. Katharine Hayles, and Ursula K. Heise, which assume humans have entered a new stage of being defined by technological innovation, biological change, and environmental catastrophe. These very different discursive formations both attempt to conceive the human anew in increasingly material terms and to trade anthropocentric models of the universe for more complex ones.

[20] Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ([1817] 1985) Biographia Literaria is an originary text for an Anglophone genealogy of poetry and poetics preoccupied with the nature and function of human imagination and intelligence. For a few key texts that pursue these questions in the US, see Walt Whitman’s ([1855] 1996) Leaves of Grass; Jean Toomer’s ([1923] 2011) Cane; and William Carlos Williams’s ([1923] 1970) Spring and All.

[21] See Lee (2012).

[22] Toni Morrison (1987) renders this violence in the novel, Beloved (234). Stevens also uses racist language in some of his letters and poems. See Hayes (2014) for a nuanced engagement with Stevens’s failures.

[23] Bloom (1976) presents Stevens as an American transcendentalist in Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens.

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