18 Pages

Introduction: The missing link


The advent of the new modernist studies has been a boon for scholars of twentiethcentury literature and culture. Any consensus about modernism in the singular has given way to numerous and disparate understandings of modernisms in the plural, as the old geographical, temporal, and material limits on what qualified as modernism have been determinedly dismantled. Scholars now work with new materials, new regions, and new questions, recognizing that all cultural production, and not just the monuments of Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Lawrence, Joyce, et al., must be taken into account. This energizing turn has reopened modernism to a more comprehensive gaze, taking in the full range of culture from roughly 1890 to 1950: journals and magazines, manifestoes, Canadian modernism, transnational modernism, realist writing, contemporary science and philosophy, writing by women and people of color, vaudeville shows, postcards, advertising, radio shows, commercial films, spiritualism, sports, toys, cookbooks, etc. Behind all of this is a renewed vision of modernism as a variegated response to a manifold modernity. Modernism is thus recast by the new modernist studies as a cultural formation occurring in different forms, in different times, and in different places, as a particular instantiation of “intelligence, complexity, and curiosity” (Mao and Walkowitz 2006: 16) that recognizes its own historicity and challenges prevailing pieties. The interactions charted in such work have transformed our understanding of modernism, and rejuvenated a field that had become moribund by the end of the twentieth century. This diversification of modernist studies has produced an interesting elision,

however: theory has been forgotten. Perhaps because it belongs to the same realm of the “high” as did canonical modernism, perhaps because it is seen as an outdated instrument whose usefulness has been superseded by a return to the archive and historicism,1 theory has been marginalized in the new modernist studies. The ironies attending this elision verge on modernist absurdity: theory’s challenge to predominant notions of the literary, canon formation, disciplinary formations, high and low culture, progress, civilization, and imperialism helped make the new modernist studies possible. Also, theory’s concern with globalization, imperialism, gender and sex roles, race and racism, reason and superstition, enlightenment and benightedness, sovereignty and slavery, margins and peripheries, and ethical complexity continues, albeit in a different register, modernism’s

already articulated concerns. Modernism’s critique of modernity animated theory’s invention of postmodernity, while theory’s anti-foundational stance extended modernism’s indeterminacy, linguistic complexity, and reflexivity. The relationship between them is unique; though certain specific theories no doubt have particular relevance for other literary movements or eras (e.g. the New Historicism and the renaissance), theory per se-that massive influx of challenges to conventions of form, aesthetics, ideology, race, class, sex, gender, institutions, and subjectivity dating from the mid-1960s to the 1990s-is integrally bound to modernism. Theory directly follows, shares a vast range of concerns with, and develops the aesthetics of modernism. Its philosophical roots are either modernist (e.g. Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, Wittgenstein) or shared by modernism (e.g. Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard). Modernist writing thinks theoretically and theory writes modernistically; they are not simply interestingly coincidental phenomena, but mutually sustaining aspects of the same project. This does not only mean that psychoanalysis is a quintessentially modernist theory, or that formalism (Russian and New Critical alike) emerges alongside modernist art’s emphasis on technique and significant form; that Bakhtin, Benjamin, Adorno, Bergson, William James, and Wittgenstein are all modernists. It also means that phenomenology, existentialism, third-wave feminism, queer studies, postcolonial theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, structuralist Marxism and neo-or post-Marxism, structuralism and post-structuralism do not merely parallel the development of modernism, but partake of it. Theory continues modernism’s concerns, aesthetics, and critical energies. The same cannot be said of any other literary movement: the affinities between modernism and theory are wide, deep, and pervasive-and they demand exploration. There is a massive amount of work to be done here, extending the boundaries of modernism even further, and enhancing our understanding of the unique affinity between modernism and theory. If we are truly to understand either of them, modernism and theory simply must be thought together. In this vein, Modernism and Theory has three objectives: (1) to continue the new

modernist revolution by showing that theory is modernism’s key continuation, (2) to redress the misperceptions of modernism installed by theory, and by the same token (3) to redress theory’s marginalization within the new modernist studies. These objectives necessitate dealing with the “intelligence, complexity, and curiosity” modernism and theory hold in common, as well as confronting the problems created by theory’s dismissal of modernism, if we are to retain significant elements of both that we risk losing in the rush to bring low all that was once “high.” In this light, the literary component in Modernism and Theory focuses predominantly on canonical and recognized authors, since their work has been the primary target of theory’s reductive characterization of modernism. This collection similarly focuses for the most part on prominent Western theorists, since it was in their name that theory built its reputation, in large part by recasting high modernism in a negative mould. The following essays thus concern such familiar names as Eliot, Stevens, Lawrence, Woolf, Bataille, Breton, Derrida, Deleuze, Agamben, Foucault, Adorno, and Benjamin, but their implications are incredibly

far-reaching. Modernist modes of thought run throughout experimental and traditional forms, canonical and uncanonical works, and are dispersed variously throughout the world. Our project begins with the work of undoing established and rigidified assumptions to open the whole to new speculative inquiry. Modernism and Theory accordingly participates in the new modernist project of expanding modernist studies not only by engaging further materials but also by returning to and rereading the old. This double movement allows us to discover new dimensions in modernism and also to recover dimensions lost in the late twentieth-century turn away from modernism. To understand the twists and turns by which the current state of play has been arrived at, we need first to review the complicated history of modernism and theory, a narrative of repeated attempts to break with the past that nonetheless depends upon a profound, if occulted, continuity. At the heart of the affinity between modernism and theory is a peculiar nar-

rative strategy, a repeated story of critique that modernism and theory tell themselves to legitimize their difference from their predecessors. Paul de Man maintains that this move is in fact the essence of modernity:

Although it is in the nature of modernity to be without precedent, the phenomenon of modernity itself is by no means unique: “modern” movements, each with a distinctive content of their own, occur again and again, and become the very articulations of history. It is characteristic of periods that live off the capital accumulated by their predecessors, so to speak, that they would think of their era as the only one worthy of being called truly modern.