The BangClash of Modernities

By Ken SeigneurieJune 13, 2016

The BangClash of Modernities

Planetary Modernisms by Susan Stanford Friedman

SUSAN STANFORD FRIEDMAN knows the enemy and it is she, the successful member of a national literature department. There, one can still live secure in the belief that “the Renaissance” sprang unbidden from 15th-century Italy, that modernity was a chalice — poisoned or not — first lifted in 17th-century Europe, then revered the world over. There, too, one may listen to modernism stirring under Baudelaire’s pen, gushing from Joyce’s, and petering out under Lowry’s.

Among scholars who have brought into question these pieties over the past two decades, Friedman’s is a leading voice. Their basic claim is that modernity and modernism were far less Eurocentered than previously believed. Some stress that influences beyond Europe contributed to the emergence of European modernity, others that “modernities” sprouted throughout the post–1500 world. Still others point out that modernism, the aesthetic realm associated with modernity, should also be plural because it is the fruit of intercultural encounters more than the sui generis product of isolated genius.

Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time develops this vision of the new modernist studies and makes good on its subtitle. Provocations it contains aplenty, but they are not off the cuff or beside the point. Some 15 years in the making, this book by a prominent scholar of modernism, narratology, and feminism, plunges us into a possible future for our increasingly desiccated discipline. Friedman is an astute reader and contributor to what she calls “the planetary turn” in modernist studies, which includes work by critics such as Simon Gikandi, Priya Joshi, Shu-mei Shih, Jessica Berman, Christopher GoGwilt, and Jahan Ramazani. Friedman is also grounded in postcolonial studies, world literature, and the anthropology of traveling cultures. Yet most of the provocations in this book come from its bringing modernist studies into conversation with the work of world historians and theorists such as Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, Janet Abu-Lughod, André Gunder Frank, and Jane Burbank.

Planetary Modernisms offers a sustained attempt to follow on a world scale and in the longue durée lines of reasoning most often made about limited spatial and temporal contexts. From this comes the impression of repeated little astonishments as Friedman takes us from where our thinking had previously been satisfied to stop and pushes it to global, transhistorical frames. For example, the new modernist studies eschews the idea that modernity equals a series of objective characteristics — public education, social progress, capitalism — as these inevitably set up an unequal “premodernity” consisting of binary opposites — ignorance, backwardness, barter — that can be applied to various others.

While refusing to ascribe positivist characteristics to modernity and shunning the kind of Q.E.D. reasoning whereby other modernities must share characteristics with that of Europe, the new modernist studies can settle for affirming that “modernity is European, but it is also X,” yet declining to wade into the murky waters of defining modernity as such. Planetary Modernisms respects the complexity around the term, but draws the reader into a cross-cultural definition of modernity as a vortex of rapid change across numerous economic, social, technological, and artistic realms.

Friedman does not stop at identifying “alternative” modernities around the world today. Her most controversial claim is that modernity is not only plural in the post–1500 world, but that modernities and modernisms have existed throughout human history. As “a geohistorical condition that is multiple, contradictory, interconnected, polycentric, and recurrent for millennia and across the globe,” modernity is akin to an explosive force that periodically shatters established orders only to present the conditions for new orders. The scope of this claim is, of course, part of a “will to planetarity” that has been sweeping literary and cultural studies over the past two decades.

Friedman’s thesis is refreshing for a couple of reasons. It is an implicit refusal of what we might as well call the “new objectivism” of highly focused local histories in which the harder a researcher strives to carve out an impersonal, manageable object of study, the more that object becomes an image of the researcher’s prejudices. It is also refreshing not only for its skepticism toward Eurocentrism, but also toward presentism. Indeed, Friedman’s book explores the possibility of inhabiting a subject position that consistently shuns the principle of any given privileged standpoint, while admitting the equal validity of multiple viewpoints. She notes that her book’s

theoretical efforts to displace Eurocentric metanarratives of world history represent an expansion of the familiar feminist critique of androcentrism and phallogocentrism: the refusal to use one mode of human existence as the universal standard by which all others are to be measured and deemed “other,” deficient, lacking.

In striving to avoid the pitfalls of Eurocentrism and presentism, Planetary Modernisms must overcome some serious methodological obstacles along the way. How, for example, is it possible to demonstrate the existence of modernities and modernisms throughout history without an ultimately European standard of modernity to measure them against? Definitions are crucial and the entire first chapter is devoted to defining “modernity,” which turns out to be fascinating as Friedman pursues the concept through nominal, relational, metonymic, and political-cultural modes. Next, she examines historical cases in which the concept of modernity may be applied to “a powerful vortex of geohistorical conditions that coalesce to produce sharp ruptures from the past” across economic, political, cultural, familial, aesthetic, technological, and epistemological realms. From this bird’s eye view of history, Friedman then zooms in on selected instances of aesthetic production, examining their contexts, and questioning whether the texts on their own terms suggest a “modernist rupture” from what preceded.

Relying on the scholarship of specialists, Friedman makes the case that a modernity occurred during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), following the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763 CE). She reads in translation some of Du Fu’s poetry written in the wake of the rebellion that led to millions of deaths and identifies numerous features of a new poetic idiom that can arguably be called “modern.” Likewise, she identifies a modernity in early 15th-century northern India and an associated modernism in the poetry of Kabir whose awareness of crisis arguably informed the poet’s innovative rhetorical complexity. True to her rejection of a European model, Friedman notes that Kabir would not be considered modern according to European norms, but would indeed be modern under “the more expansive concept of multiple and recurrent modernisms.”

I have no competence to evaluate whether the claim of Tang and Mughal modernities is plausible. On its own terms, within the context of Planetary Modernisms, the argument makes sense, but as Friedman readily acknowledges, her readings would have to be confirmed by specialists in these fields. The purpose and value of her readings is to pose the question of an expanded concept of modernity, for otherwise, if “the archive of ideas about modernity remains exclusively western in the post-1500 period, then other concepts of the ‘modern’ remain undiscoverable.”

Friedman is well aware that by declaring modernity in the plural, she is leaving the door open to all comers. The Viking raiders who triggered rapid, long-term change in medieval Western Europe were, according to this line of thinking, architects of a modernity, and their sagas paragons of medieval modernism. Almost a thousand years later, near the other pole, the Zulu nation under Shaka might well have sparked a modernity. Such are the more spectacular interrogations of history and culture that Planetary Modernisms provokes; still Friedman prefers these complications to the reified notion of modernity as always and everywhere European.

As provocative as the readings of individual “modernist” texts from throughout history and across the planet may be, the most useful results of this study are methodological and disciplinary. By pulling the Eurocentric rug out from under us, Planetary Modernisms forces us to do literature differently. It’s not that we can no longer study “high modernism,” but that the questions one asks from the standpoint of planetary modernisms might defamiliarize our Hemingway, Joyce, and Woolf. Moreover, Friedman’s use of a “collage” method, which she describes as a nonhierarchical act of comparison, is a game attempt to read in a world for which the center has long since stopped holding. It reveals sometimes startling insights even when applied to previously well-rehearsed comparisons such as between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. Juxtaposed to North-South questions in Conrad, Salih’s novel reveals tensions between the North and South of Sudan itself that I, for one, had not previously seen.

Planetary Modernisms is an unusual book. It demonstrates a mature scholar’s mastery of several fields, but prefers to ask new questions about basic facts of modernity rather than to contribute incremental knowledge within established research paradigms. It respects the vast body of research on modernity and modernism but seeks “to unsettle, even to shock us into rethinking the most fundamental categories of modernity.” It strongly argues a controversial thesis, but ends with a final chapter in which the author trenchantly debates with herself on 13 questionable aspects of her study. Perhaps most striking, Planetary Modernisms hails from the heart of an English department, but seems to want nothing more than to provoke the discipline into self-transformation. If all this is unusual, maybe it is because its author strives to remain true to research as the pursuit, not the display, of knowledge.

This book aims to be provocative, so it is unsurprising that it will indeed provoke anybody committed to studying modernism from within a national paradigm. Friedman, a prominent member of the Modernist Studies Association, tweaks the MSA, noting that its website periodizes modernism from 1890 to 1950 as if the particular Anglo-American case were the norm.

Yet the most biting criticisms of Planetary Modernisms are likely to come from the very non-Western literature departments that Friedman seeks to include in an equal exchange of ideas on modernity. They will likely complain that Planetary Modernisms deals with other literatures only in English translation and that, try as she may to see non-Western modernisms and modernities from a non-hegemonic point of view, her dehistoricization of the concepts reinstates Anglo-America at the center. All of which would be true, of course, if Planetary Modernisms were intended to be the last word on the subject. The purpose of this book is to open a space of debate around modernity and modernism such that literary scholars who are now closed off from one another in national literature departments may begin to talk about these topics together by recognizing the need to forge a common vocabulary and points of reference.

Another consequence of writing a provocative book is that it can provoke in unpredictable ways. While it has been clear for some time that European modernity as traditionally construed was thoroughly imbricated with violent conquest, Friedman’s book makes it equally clear that modernities and modernisms the world over and throughout history have been intertwined with violence:

the recurrent nature of violent modernities throughout the longue durée of global history set the scene for repeated aesthetic breakthroughs, for poets abandoning the conventions of their immediate predecessors and seeking new forms to represent the historical ruptures that dislocate their lives, the scenario of their chaos.

No telling where such insights may lead. If the connections between the violence of modernity and modernist creation are indeed inextricable, then either we long for relatively peaceful, non-modern stability at the price of reduced progress and artistic consolidation, or we embrace what Friedman (citing Amiri Baraka) calls the “BangClash” violent vortex of change and innovation. Is it any wonder some long for old-fashioned modernity?


Ken Seigneurie is professor of World Literature at Simon Fraser University.

LARB Contributor

Ken Seigneurie is professor of world literature at Simon Fraser University. His most recent monograph is Standing by the Ruins: Elegiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon (Fordham University Press, 2011). His translation (from Arabic) of ‘Awdat al-almānī ila rushdih (How the German Came to His Senses) by Rashid al-Daif appears in: What Makes a Man? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin (University of Texas Press, 2015). He is currently serving as general editor of the five-volume Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Literature.


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