Death by Prefix? The Paradoxical Life of Modernist Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is to say that while there is no consensus on what “modernism” means, the term carries significant conceptual and professional weight. In 2001, just as the New Modernist Studies was gaining steam, Jennifer Wicke presciently characterized the field’s “speculative bubble.” Wicke warned of an irony: modernism itself first made its name by ironizing “the new” as a market logic of contemporary capitalism, and now the field that makes modernist texts its object quite unironically calls itself “new.” We have written ourselves into a self-designed genealogy of modernism, she implies, and yet might have missed the force, or the warnings, of the concept’s central claims. A barrage of rejuvenating prefixes actually might have created an unsustainable and even suicidal attachment to “the old.” (In another irony, the expansions of what counts as a text, very much indebted to cultural studies and to postmodernist thought, became key tools in the revision of modernism.) And yet, 15 years later, that bubble continues to swell.

Surely, few fields have ever benefited so greatly from such instability at their core, even though fresh debates about a field’s parameters are generally enlivening and rarely result in the death of a field. (But we must note that modernism’s rebirth and rise is far from ubiquitous: jobs are as scarce as in any other field, for instance.) A more accurate narrative would note that “modernism” has been in a perpetual state of definitional crisis almost since its inception — and there’s significant debate about when that occurred, even. A closer look at the years of midcentury consolidation of the term reveals that prefixes and alternative postulations were already in play: a young poet then called LeRoi Jones (whom we’d later know as Amiri Baraka) proposed in 1963, for instance, an oppositional “populist modernism.” And outside of English-language scholarly fields, the term “modernism” still has little or limited purchase.

This hardly seems like the predestined genealogy of a term that now dominates several realms. Why this special dispensation and trajectory for “modernism” and its attendant field, then? Some might posit that modernism’s revival in academia is tied to a broader revival (perhaps a post-postmodernist revival) in other areas like design, architecture, or film. That’s certainly plausible, but then, where is the equivalent revival and rebirth of realism in academia? For realism still dominates a number of genres and narrative modes in popular, semipopular, cinematic, and other realms, but there is no Oxford Handbook of Global Realisms. Others suggest that modernist writers accumulated cultural capital across the 20th century, making Ulysses and The Waste Land indubitable landmarks in modern literary canons and thus impossible to skip on syllabi or in cultural literacy. But those texts are battling for airtime with myriad others, and with myriad texts of new media. Canons are hardly stable, and undergraduate enrollment patterns don’t indicate an eternal life for Joyce or Eliot: the Open Syllabus Project’s rankings show modernists trailing far behind stalwarts like Shakespeare, Greek theater, and Frankenstein, and behind more recent writers like Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison.

When discussing the many new formulations of “cosmopolitanism” that critics proposed in the 2000s, Janet Lyon spoke of the danger of “death-by-prefix,” in which countless new adjectives risked modifying “cosmopolitanism” to the point of conceptual evacuation. Prefixes seem always to run that risk, animating and potentially exhausting as they are; and regardless, most everyone in the field is intrigued to learn of new authors, new texts, and new sites of investigation, even as the canonical names have not disappeared. And so, if modernism is in a bubble, I don’t know when to short it — if ever. The field is inarguably exciting and variegated. Ironies and paradoxes are fictions that, in most arenas of life, we willingly (if not gladly) sustain indefinitely. In some ways, the field is doing the work to validate my constant dodging of questions about modernism’s definition or explanation: those known unknowns continue to unfold, articulating with trademark uncertainty a version of Stein’s famous claim that “there is no there there.”


Gayle Rogers is associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Modernism and the New Spain (2012) and co-author, with Sean Latham, of Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (2015).