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Weak Theory, Weak Modernism

© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press

Weakness: not a word that would seem, at first blush, to have anything to say to modernism.  Modernism doesn’t blush; it blasts. Its reputation is for strength in extremis—for steep critiques of modernity, energetic convention busting, the breaking of vessels. In the words of its early theorists, modernism is “rebellion against authority,” a “revolution of the word,” “kicking over old walls” and “breaking of ‘Do Nots.’”[1] Nothing small-bore about revolt, nothing weak about making it new. Surely weakness is modernism’s obverse—injured, low-energy, and acquiescent—all the cloying orthodoxy that modernism would shock its way out of. Modernism is the production of aesthetic strength through iconoclasm and strenuous innovation. It is strong people exhibiting strength.

Or so the story used to go. From the perspective of the present, that story sounds enthralled with the self-mythologizing of a handful of male writers, germane to only a narrow bandwidth of the cultural production we have come to call modernist, and then only to its self-understanding. It verges on cartoon vitalism. Equating modernism with this kind of muscular idol smashing and warrior masculinity misses both the traditionalism of the strong and the dissidence of the weak. It favors metropolitan spaces hospitable to consensus about what counts as convention and what as rebellion. It skews away from generations who understood themselves as extending rather than negating the work of modernist forebears. And it rules out whole areas of study that have lately become important in our field, including the everyday, the domestic, the affective, the middlebrow, the infrastructural, the doctrinal. “Strong” modernism belongs to a largely superseded moment in modernist studies.

Yet with modernism as with so much else, it’s one thing to let go of strength and quite another to embrace weakness. Weakness comes with a lot of baggage. It sits at the center of a dense array of slurs by which marginal subjects have been kept marginal. The word weak can function in an ableist heteropatriarchy as a synonym, variously, for woman, queer, and disabled. A feminist, anti-homophobic, disability-oriented practice encounters weakness first as a charge to disprove, only secondarily as part of a logic to dismantle. In what follows, some meanings of weakness will present themselves as normative (i.e., evaluative or judgmental) and others as non-normative (i.e., non-evaluative or descriptive). Some will plainly participate in the semantic fields of gender, sexuality, or ability while others will not. But even the ostensibly non-normative meanings of weak—including its earliest sense as “pliant, flexible, readily bending”—are tinged with its normative ones, as even the non-gendered meanings (for example) bear some memory of, or association with, the gendered ones.[2] In considering what weakness might afford us theoretically or methodologically, we are still and always confronting a term of subjection. Rather than pretend we can simply hive off this history by thickening a few semantic firewalls, we do better to keep in mind the tendency of descriptive and dismissive senses of weakness to interfere with one another. This would be to remember that in taking up non-normative forms of weakness we are also reclaiming a term of derogation—even as no theoretical embrace of weakness is reducible to such a reclamation.

If weakness is such a loaded concept, why not find some other way to characterize our theorizing and field-construction? One answer is that the various loads borne by weakness can productively decenter what they encounter. Baggage unbalances. To the extent that the terms theory and modernism are still masculine-gendered, conjoining them with weakness further discomfits that gendering. The same conjuncture may vex what remains of both terms’ association with normative modes of sexuality, mindedness, and embodiment. Weakness, that is, helps us continue to make theory and modernism strange to themselves. It does so not just in its capacity to unsettle by association but, more and more, through paradigms of weak thought—paradigms that have largely emerged in fields that address difference, stigma, and inequity. This has been especially true of queer theory, whose dissident relationship to strong ideologies of sex and gender prepared it to play a central role in developing models of weak thought. Out of scholarship in queer, gender, and disability studies have come alternatives not just to normative accounts of identity and expression, capacity and desire, but also to methodologies rooted in those normative accounts.[3] These emergent, alternative methods explore, among other things, what would happen if strength were no longer the presumptive master-criterion for art, thought, research, argument, and teaching. They prompt us to revisit, in both our critical practices and our pedagogy, the gendered politics of yielding and force, of all-or-nothing arguments with their forgotten middles and superseded alternatives, of agency and its relinquishment. They draw attention to obsolete epistemologies, to actions unpremised on self-possession, to creative practices unendorsed by the portrait of the author as lone master builder. And they issue an invitation that scholars of modernism, including the contributors to this special issue, are taking up: to leave off theorizing weakness as a failure, absence, or function of strength and instead to theorize from weakness as a condition endowed with traits and possibilities of its own.

A second answer to “why weakness?”—related to the first insofar as many of its key figures have commitments in feminism, queer theory, and disability studies—also begins with a set of recent methodological initiatives. These have proposed lower-pitched alternatives to certain “strong” theoretical habits of thought in literary studies. Dubbed “the new modesty in literary criticism” by Jeffrey Williams, this array of overlapping but distinct approaches includes post-critique, surface reading, distant reading, thin description, the sociological turn, and new formalism.[4] The critics associated with these approaches call for alternatives to “symptomatic reading”—that is, to interpretive modes whose primary aim is to expose the ruses of ideology, decode the encryptions wrought by the unconscious, or otherwise penetrate the surfaces of texts to get at their truer, occulted depths. Many of these critics call as well for literary studies to retire two more portraits familiar to students of strong modernism: the portrait of the artwork as locus of autonomy from ideology and the portrait of the critic as heroic demystifier of ideology. In place of these, proponents of the new modesty have offered alternative portraits of the critic ranging from “minimal critical agency” to “canny formalism” and alternative methods running from descriptive microanalyses of individual texts’ manifest content to quantitative analyses of large literary databases.[5] And they’ve provoked strong reactions: accusations of quietism, recommitments to critique, and attempts to bend the new modesty to explicitly political ends.

These developments and provocations have been slow to impact modernist studies, in part because their initial epicenter was in nineteenth-century studies. Sharon Marcus, whose meditation on “just reading” in Between Women (2007) helped touch off the post-critical turn, is a Victorianist.[6] Stephen Best, who with Marcus co-edited the special issue of Representations on “The Way We Read Now,” is a scholar of legal hermeneutics, race, and nineteenth-century American literature.[7] Nicholas Dames and Leah Price have drawn attention, respectively, to how nineteenth-century readers read without interpreting and how they used books without reading them.[8] Their fellow Victorianist, Caroline Levine, has written one of the central statements of the new or strategic formalism.[9] And Franco Moretti’s turn toward quantitative methods has happened primarily in relation to the corpus of nineteenth-century fiction.[10] Yet modernist studies and its practitioners have also played a role, if an often underappreciated one, in the turn away from symptomatic reading. Moretti has been crucially engaged with modernism since his Signs Taken for Wonders (1983), and modernist works have remained a part of his recent data sets. Rita Felski, a Latourian advocate of post-critique, is a scholar of gender and modernism; her Uses of Literature (2008), one of the opening salvos of post-critique, is partly staged as an attempt to take modernism back from Jameson’s strong historicism.[11] Heather Love, a scholar of gender, sexuality, affect, and modernism, has played a key role in bringing microsociological methods to literary study.[12] Other examples abound.

One aim of this special issue, then, is to bring together work that explores the ramifications of the new modesty and a certain subset of queer methods in and for modernist studies in particular. Another is to advance debates about post-critique by moving past some of the brittler binarisms—paranoid versus reparative, depth versus surface, close versus distant, critique versus description—on which those debates run aground. We do so by shifting the focus of the debate to weak theory, a loose parcel of concepts and heuristics that mostly antedate post-critique, and only some of which have since become associated with it. Several articles in this issue, especially Benjamin Kahan’s, take up Eve Sedgwick’s work on reparative reading, which itself draws on midcentury psychologist Silvan Tomkins’s notion of weak affect theories as attempting to account for “near” phenomena rather than to unify a wide range of disparate objects. Grace Lavery draws partly alongside Felski while also re-entangling affect, criticism, and critique, terms that tend to remain discrete in Felski’s recent work. Contributors also engage with figures less easily assimilable to the post-critical turn, in the process asking how weak theory might abet or reshape critique rather than supersede it. Sara Crangle draws on “weak thought” (pensiero debole), the name that postmodern philosopher Gianni Vattimo gives to what survives Nietzsche’s discrediting of strong thought’s metanarratives (foundational metaphysics; a singular, progressive model of modernity; Hegelo-Marxian models of totality). She builds, too, on Emmanuel Levinas’s use of weakness as a central metaphor in the critique of philosophical transcendence. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde extend Sianne Ngai’s work on the aesthetics of negative emotions characterized by “weak intentionality” and “the politically charged predicament of suspended agency.”[13] Sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak interpersonal ties is invoked in this issue by Wai Chee Dimock, who has elsewhere called for theory that “does not aspire to full occupancy in the analytic field, that settles for a low threshold in plausibility and admissibility . . . that does not even try to clinch the case.”[14] Dimock’s work, in turn, informs Gabriel Hankins’s account of a weak conjunction between digital method and the field of modernist studies. What these theorists of weakness, Sedgwick included, share is not a vehement, dialectical negation of either strength or critique but an interest in the work accomplished by the proximate, the provisional, and the probabilistic.

Our special issue pursues two main ways of reacquainting modernist studies with weakness. First, it takes the view that a post-Nietzschean weakening in the philosophies of history and aesthetics was a condition of modernism’s emergence, at least in the European context, as a cultural phenomenon. Modernism, by these lights, is made both necessary and possible in the west by theory’s weakening. Yet as a condition of modernist possibility, that theoretical weakening was partially written over by the energetic masculinism attributed to the figures and works first canonized by the field. This heroic “men of 1914” script likely compounded baseline cultural and institutional prejudices in effacing writers who were women, sexual dissidents, disabled subjects, and racial others, or who identified with those minoritized subjects in their work, leaving it to later generations of scholars to attempt to undo that erasure through recovery projects. Another result of the overwriting at issue here was that modernism got misrecognized for several generations as the zenith of myth or of its future-oriented counterpart, metanarrative, whereas modernism was in fact inextricable from the loss of metanarrative, attending to myth as a lost or impossible object of desire—a virtual, ruined, or compensatory thing. This is to say that the “incredulity toward metanarratives” Jean-François Lyotard ascribed to postmodernism was already a feature of modernism, indeed one of its originary conditions.[15] Several of our contributors pursue the upshot of this revision: that epistemological humility and weakness-in-theory did not happen to modernism after the fact but happened as and through modernism.

Second, the issue makes the case that modernist studies’s emergence as a field has been concomitant with a steady weakening of its key term, modernism. Ours has become a strong field—populous, varied, generative, self-transforming—in proportion as it has relaxed its definitions of modernism and learned to ask other questions of a work than “But is it really modernist?”—questions that sometimes permit other strong terms, commitments, and analytics to come to the fore. True, a certain bent for gatekeeping and canon building remains a phantom reflex. But that same tendency has been an object of mounting skepticism for decades. Michael Levenson’s A Genealogy of Modernism (1984), whose title seems to promise a bright-line, in-or-out account of modernism, instead describes the term as “at once vague and unavoidable,” a “blunt instrument” to be used only “as a rough way of locating our attention.”[16] According to Bonnie Kime Scott, the contributing editors of her field-changing critical anthology The Gender of Modernism (1990) “worked restively” with the term, manipulating it rather than attempting to fit neglected figures into then-current masculinist definitions.[17] By the time the field was emerging fully in the 1990s, the “men of 1914” portrait and the straw-man modernism created by theorists and practitioners of postmodernism were being discredited. With an immanent theory of modernism weak enough to permit the horizontal frictions and attachments necessary for field formation, modernist studies could be imagined as a capacious and self-reflexive problem space. Having shed its drive to coherentism, the field could cohere.

And expand, you might be thinking, recalling Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz’s one-word summation of the changes in the field since about 1990.[18] It could expand chronologically, beyond its old 1890–1940 period boundaries; expand in the cultural strata, media, and methodologies it compasses; expand, perhaps above all, spatially, through a turn described variously as transnational, global, and planetary. When a field expands so dramatically, and along so many axes at once, it rightly raises the question of expansionism—of the extent to which by opening up it might encroach on adjacent fields, or at least compel them to accept the terms of the expanding field’s recognition. When Christopher Bush, reviewing Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms (2015), writes that her claim of a medieval Mongol modernity “vividly captures the shock if not awe of [the book’s] agenda to liberate the world and its pasts for ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity,’” he analogizes the planetary turn advocated by Friedman to US imperialism’s forcible export of democracy.[19] Friedman herself anticipates the charge, concluding that it is “better to risk expansionism than to perpetuate the Eurocentric box” drawn by narrowly periodized conceptions of modernism and modernity.[20] These charges and countercharges, all of them strong claims about strength, should nonetheless prompt a series of questions among practitioners of a weak modernist studies—questions about weakness’s implication in, even its predication on, forms of strength. When does the weakening of a field’s central term participate, deliberately or not, in a “lose to win” strategy, a performatively submissive showing of the belly that draws attention away from a territorial dominance-bid? Does weak theory have a role to play in balancing, on the one hand, the obligation to broaden narrow canons and, on the other, the dangers of overreach and appropriation? Is there a weak theoretical alternative to treating fields of study as scarce, excludable resources or embattled territories? What does weakness offer in the way of a new vantage from which to theorize power, including power’s way of working through weakness and weakness-claims? And under what conditions is the embrace of weakness in theory, method, rhetoric, or field-construction a luxury only available to the strong?

I’ll take up some of these questions below; others will bubble up in contributors’ articles. For the moment, let me acknowledge that not all of this journal’s readers will recognize, in the foregoing descriptions, the global field of modernist studies, or even the wedge of that field—studies of mostly Anglophone modernism by scholars based in British and North American universities—represented by this special issue. Nor will everyone find weak theoretical approaches worth the sacrifice of analytical certitude, reach, force, and occupancy that they often entail. If the two Modernist Studies Association roundtables at which most of its contributors first shared their work are any indication, this special issue will occasion lively, even heated debate. Surely this is one of the most valuable services such an issue can tender its field of study: rather than “brand” a scholarly method or territorialize an object of study, to irritate a field into a state of self-scrutiny—or even a crisis of self-recognition—that generates fresh methods and collaborations, needed forms of humility and responsibility, unforeseen kinds of projects, and renewed or new reasons for undertaking them.

Some Weak Theorists

Strong theory, weak theory: this is not, of course, a distinction invented here but one that emerges from several sources that we can loosely bundle. Nor is the “weak theory” at issue anything as recent as the vaunted waning of post-structuralism (as in “the death of theory”). Its earliest strand might be said to be roughly co-emergent, and perhaps causally entangled, with Anglo-European modernism. This strand would include both Marx’s subjection of ideology to the dialectic and the later founderings of Hegelo-Marxian certainties and models of totality in the moment of their actualization. It would include Nietzsche’s dissolution of metaphysics—his assault, in the name of the will to power, on systematic philosophy’s god-terms and its assumption of progress. And it would include Freud’s understanding of analysis not as a way to reveal being as a structure, condition, or given, but rather as a way to construct being as an event. Here, I’m paraphrasing the aforementioned Gianni Vattimo, for whom a society with “supreme and exclusive values,” in effect a pantheon of god-terms, is no longer tenable thanks to the contributions of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. In their wake, says Vattimo, the philosopher’s duty is not to demonstrate transcendental or objective truths but to edify by showing that truth is produced through interpretation and conversation; no longer to be “humanity’s guide to understanding the Eternal” but to “redirect humanity toward history.”[21] For literary critics steeped in the new modesty, such claims can be usefully disorienting in the way they turn critique’s sponsorial giants (again, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) to ends distinct from the “critique” portrayed and opposed by advocates of the post-critical turn. For Vattimo, critique is precisely not the confident exposure of surface phenomena as manifestations of a single self-concealing code, structure, or hierarchy. It is closer to the recognition that such exposures would require sovereign metaphysical notions of being and truth that are no longer tenable; that what remains to philosophy is a practical accounting of how truth is constituted by interpretation within particular historical horizons. What’s more, such a praxis aims to go on weakening whatever transhistorical claims to being and truth persist. Far from reducing all objects to proof of a strong theory, critique, for Vattimo, weakens its objects without reciprocally strengthening the critic’s thought.

Along these lines, Vattimo has since the 1980s been advocating what he calls pensiero debole or “weak thought,” a philosophy that would reduce the “peremptoriness of reality” and address reality “as a set of shared images—a discourse.” Asked in 2002 what a strong theory of weakness would look like, Vattimo responded:

In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world “as it is,” but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced. Philosophy can consider itself neither as knowledge of the external, universal structures of being, nor as knowledge of the external, universal structures of episteme, for both of these are undone by the philosophical process of weakening. That is, after the critique of ideology, after the Nietzschean critique of the notion of “things as they are” (“‘Weak Thought,’” 453)

The key phrase here is “interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.” For Vattimo, thought is weak not only when it avoids “strong” or transcendental truth-claims but also when it actively weakens the monopolistic hold of such claims on our understanding of history and possibility. By a similar token, law becomes, “by means of interpretation . . . an instrument for weakening the original violence of justice” (454). Again, weak thought weakens the peremptoriness of what passes for the inarguable; it beholds the edifice of the given and says (with apologies to Cheng Tang and Ezra Pound), “Make it weak.” However, to relinquish metaphysics along with teleological models of history is not, for Vattimo, to give up on the possibility of social transformation. To the contrary, he writes, compassion [pietà] for those “elements that have not become world: the ruins accumulated by the history of victors at the feet of Klee’s angel . . . is the only real fuel of revolution—not some project legitimized in the name of a natural right or an inevitable course of history.”[22] Weak thought would be the means by which those so far unworlded ruins might gain our compassion and charge us to make radically new social formations become world. Weakness would be the strait gate through which newness would enter.

Whereas for Vattimo weak thought is the sequel to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, for Eve Sedgwick weak theory is an alternative to the strong theory she sees as exemplified by their work. Building on psychologist and cybernetician Silvan Tomkins’s 1963 book, Affect-Imagery-Consciousness, Sedgwick takes strong theory as shorthand for strong affect theory. In fact, all theories, as she understands Tomkins, are affect theories in that they seek to maximize positive and minimize negative affect on the part of the theorist, who could be Freud or one of his analysands, a tenured Marxist or a member of the global precariat. But then comes the counterintuitive part: affect theories that fail to minimize negative affect tend to become stronger, compensating for their failure by attempting to unify a wider and wider range of disparate phenomena. A failed affect theory, that is, hopes to ward off further refutation and humiliation by securing a larger territory against bad surprises. If we go along with Sedgwick in seeing orthodox Marxism as a strong theory, we might say that it tends to become increasingly totalizing, coherentist, and teleological in proportion as it fails to prevent Marxists from feeling shitty about the persistence of capitalism.

Whereas strong theories get stronger after failing to minimize negative affect, weak affect theories, says Tomkins, must be effective to remain weak. Their effectiveness tends to inhere in their attempts not to unify far-flung objects but to “account only for ‘near’ phenomena,” venturing “little better than a description of the phenomena which [they purport] to explain.”[23] Strong theory is decryptive, bent on decoding or unmasking a vast array of phenomena in order to avoid bad surprises. Weak theory is descriptive, seeking to know but not necessarily to know better than its object. Insofar as it omits to defend itself at every moment against refutation, weak theory finds the risk of bad surprises an acceptable price to pay for the prospect of good ones—for the hope “that the future may be different from the present,” in Sedgwick’s words, even if that opening of the future means entertaining “such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did” (Touching Feeling, 146). As against the indicative moods of strong theory, weak theory welcomes the subjunctive, the speculative, and the counterfactual.

Sedgwick’s work has sparked a lively series of exchanges, particularly among queer theorists and students of affect, about how a “reparative” criticism might supersede the “paranoid” criticism powered by the hermeneutic of suspicion. As stimulating as these exchanges have been, they often produce a caricature of all “critique” as addicted to binary decipherment and the dodgy rabbit-out-of-a-hat stagecraft of revelation. Having fixated on Sedgwick’s Kleinian menu of reparative versus paranoid positions, critics of the hermeneutic of suspicion have paid scant attention to the variety of weak-theoretical projects that shelter under the ostensibly strong-theoretical big-top of critique. (As just one example, think of the ever-growing importance and varied legacies of Benjamin’s work, with its site-specificity and weak messianism, in contrast to the long stall of orthodox Marxism.) This has been to miss one of the more suggestive elements of Sedgwick’s work via Tomkins—the counterintuitive dynamics that distinguish weak from strong affect theories—as a result of attending too doggedly to one of her project’s more inflexible trajectories, the critique of critique.

This embrace of the reparative energies in Sedgwick over her advocacy of weak theory should prompt us to ask whether our tendency to turn toward what is considered strong—our dynamotropism, if you will—prevents even those who practice weak theory, even those whose fields are constituted around weakly theorized terms, from proudly declaring themselves weak theorists. It may be that practicing weak theorists who avoid the handle have intuited something like weak theory’s double-bind: that to avow oneself a weak theorist in a dynamotropic profession is to invite attack for being unrigorous, quietist, anti-theory, anti-intellectual; that the negative affect consequent on that attack would cause one’s theory of weakness to grow stronger in response, until it aimed to be the key to all mythologies; that the only way to keep one’s theory weak and effective is to practice it with a furtiveness that looks an awful lot like paranoia, that signal trait of the strong theorist. Or, alternatively, to practice it under cover of big terms (worldedness, globality, planetarity) or sweeping moves (transperiodization, say, or transtemporalization) whose apparently vast scale camouflages the theoretical weakening one is actually seeking to produce. We might well hesitate before following Sedgwick in reading all theory, particularly critical theories of ideology, as affect theory. But if modernist studies has indeed, for a while now, been weakening its immanent theory of modernism without saying so, it would be worth our considering the role affect might have played in that disavowed weakening, and might still have to play in its avowal.

One of the few theorists in the field to explicitly avow and advocate weakness is Wai Chee Dimock. In her 2013 essay on Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats, Dimock uses genre to road test a weak-theoretical approach. As against strong theoretical projects in which “there is a curious resemblance . . . between the totalizing zeal of the theorist and the totalizing claim being made on behalf of its object,” the weak theory Dimock advocates

cannot support a system of sovereign axioms. Instead, the frequency, diversity, and centrifugal nature of the spin-offs [i.e., threads in laterally propagated, long Latourian networks] suggest not only that the points of contact will change from moment to moment but that the field itself might not even be governed by a single morphology, an ordering principle generalizable across the board and presetting its hierarchies. Local circumstances can do a lot to change the operating baseline and the various claims to primacy resting upon it. (“Weak Theory,” 733, 737)

As for Sedgwick and Vattimo, weak theory in Dimock’s sketch conceives of the future other than as the time in which one’s theory will be either refuted or vindicated. It imagines there are other things to do with weakness than to triumph over it, other responses to constraint than its redemption as strength. Where strong theory attempts to ride its sovereign axioms to “a future never for a moment in doubt,” weak theory tries to see just a little way ahead, behind, and to the sides, conceiving even of its field in partial and provisional terms that will neither impede nor shatter on the arrival of the unforeseen (733).

Weakening Modernism

Dimock’s piece has the advantage, for some readers, of not sitting on the pediment of Cold War affect theory or presupposing a particular reading of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in whose wake the duty of the philosopher or the work of the critic must undergo a sea change. Her aims are thus not epochal but practical and incremental—“that literary history,” she says “might be more easily conceived as a nonsovereign field, with site-specific input generating a variable morphology, a variable ordering principle, so that what appears primary in one locale can indeed lapse into secondariness in another” (738). That’s not a bad description of the field of modernist studies today: not quite a Sedgwickian venture, where one does little more than describe what one purports to explain, but something closer to Vattimo’s practice of weakening the monopolistic or sovereign hold of particular terms by rotating through them, according one a local primacy in one place, then relegating it to an ancillary, latent, or even fallow role in another. Although the transnational (global, planetary) turn has contributed to the field’s becoming nonsovereign, I’d suggest that this process has been underway for several decades—and, more, that the field’s early weakening (as it were) is bound up with its tardy formation. As I understand it, what Mao and Walkowitz christened the new modernist studies in 2008 was never preceded by an old modernist studies. Yes, there were scholars of modernist works and authors before the launching of this journal in 1994 and of the Modernist Studies Association in 1998, but they were working predominantly in single-author fields. The broader field-making energies of those who thought about modernism were pouring mainly down two other channels. First, post-structuralist theory, which became a principal field for a generation of scholars trained to work on early twentieth-century writers and who might, in post-structuralism’s absence, have been establishing a modernist studies during the 1970s and 1980s. And second, the establishment of postmodernism as a term and field of study—the journal Postmodern Culture was founded in 1990, four years before Modernism/modernity—whose canonical works were championed by scholars who wrote first books on modernist writers and sought to canonize later works through analogies to modernism.[24]

What kind of theory of modernism has been animating modernist studies since its belated formation in the 1990s? How would we characterize that theory’s density, intensity, extensiveness, and maybe above all its investment in making claims declarative enough to be refutable? I want to suggest that the field’s immanent theory of modernism is a weak theory, growing weaker. Here, I mean weak in the descriptive rather than the normative sense. For all our efforts to attend less exclusively to strong people exhibiting strength, scholars in the humanities have stayed pretty devoted to normative senses of strength and weakness, whether in our scholarly and theoretical terms, in the rhetoric of the recommendation letter, or in the terms we use to evaluate student work. (“This is a strongly motivated argument, but weakly supported by textual evidence,” for example.) Yet if we look to other disciplines we encounter all kinds of weakness in the non-normative or descriptive sense, often to do with questions of range. Consider the weak nuclear force in physics, whose weakness indexes the super-close range of particle interactions. Or sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak interpersonal ties, whose weakness he conceived by analogy with the weak hydrogen bonds that bind water molecules to one another, in contrast to the strong covalent or ionic bonds that hold water together at the intramolecular level.

Granovetter’s classic 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” is worth tarrying over here for its descriptive (and, one might add, theoretically strong) account of how one kind of weakness can produce another kind of strength.[25] Granovetter’s central claim is a simple and powerful one: that weak social ties enable information to travel farther and more rapidly than strong ones do. If I communicate news to someone to whom I’m strongly tied—say, to a sibling, partner, or close friend—that bit of news will simply have gained access to a social network that overlaps largely with my own. But if I tell my dental hygienist, an elevator acquaintance from the building where I work, or a stranger ahead of me in the post office line—someone whose quotidian social universe overlaps with mine slightly or not at all—the news jumps networks as a spark leaps a firebreak to touch off dry new fuel. As nineteenth-centuryists are beginning to discover, Granovetter’s piece is especially useful to read beside literary works that attempt to model, in their diegetic worlds, the social itineraries of information.[26] It helps us think about why, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the news about Edward Casaubon’s diabolical codicil reaches Will Ladislaw through a long series of weak social ties, jumping gaps between households, employment relations, classes, and communities, moving eventually from the country estates to the well-to-do townsfolk who make up Will’s main social circle. All this because Dorothea, the codicil’s subject and Will’s would-be lover, holds him too dear to tell him news that casts him in a shameful light—the news that her dying husband made her inheritance of his fortune conditional on her never marrying Will once she was widowed. Strong ties, at best a slow mode of dissemination, can actually kill the transmission of news altogether when shame arises between intimates.

One can imagine tracing the relationship between weak social ties and the circulation of information in modernist works, especially in the more capacious and populous fictions we study. But so far scholars of modernism haven’t taken up Granovetterian readings of diegetic social networks, perhaps on the assumption that modernist works reject the kind of realist mimesis or modeling that would give such readings traction. While shying away from weak social ties in our diegetic analyses, however, we have for a while now been giving them pride of place in tracing the social networks in which modernist cultural producers were embedded. For contrast’s sake, consider as a baseline two consecrated images from the study of coterie modernism—images that use the idiom of the family portrait to give us a modernism among intimates (figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce in Pound’s rooms in Paris, 1923, photographer unknown.
Fig. 2. Ottoline Morrell, Maria Huxley (née Nys), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell at Garsington Manor, 1915, photographer unknown.

These two portraits (and similar ones of Bloomsbury, the Stein circle, and other tightly clustered coteries) were among the fetish images of modernist studies in its early years. They were largely portraits of strong social ties: siblings, partners, lovers, close friends, classmates, clubmates, patrons, protégés, and impresarios. Now consider this well-known image from the introduction to Scott’s The Gender of Modernism, an anthology that built on two decades of recovery work and canon-expansion by feminist critics and scholars of African American literature (fig. 3):

Fig. 3. Web of connections among anthologized authors (upper case) and additional figures (lower case) in Bonnie Kime Scott’s The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (1990).

As significant as the content of the “Tangled Mesh of Modernists” is the critical impulse to which it testifies: an impulse to look beyond families and coteries to a broader variety of farther ramifying connections. To be sure, some of Scott’s lines indicate strong ties. But the majority trace weaker ones, often between individuals who never met in person and were connected through print—through the writing of appreciative reviews, introductions, critiques, parodies, even diatribes. The ties here are both one-way and two-way. And they include a wide range of dispositions, from approbation (Rebecca West of Virginia Woolf) to antipathy (Woolf of Arnold Bennett, Nancy Cunard of Pound). Recalling Vattimo’s notion of interpretation as a process of weakening the monopolistic hold of putatively objective structures, we can see Scott’s “Tangled Mesh of Modernists” as one way this weakening looked at a crucial inflection point in modernist studies’s self-understanding.

For a more recent example of the drift in modernist studies toward a field conception based on weaker social ties, consider this image of ten writers and producers affiliated with the BBC Eastern Service (fig. 4). It’s an image that has appeared during the last few years as both an object of analysis and a kind of methodological touchstone or escutcheon in work by Daniel Morse, Peter Kalliney, and others.[27]

Fig. 4. Sitting: Venu Chitale, M. J. Tambimuttu, T. S. Eliot, Una Marson, Mulk Raj Anand, Christopher Pemberton, Narayana Menon. Standing: George Orwell, Nancy Parratt, William Empson. BBC recording studio, 1942, photographer unknown. © BBC, reproduced with permission.

Where the sage-like Strachey centers fig. 2, above, here the microphone supplants him as the strong hub of the image, concretizing at least three more diffuse if undeniably powerful structures—the crown-chartered monopoly of the BBC, the Indian wing of its Empire Service during wartime, and the medium of radio itself. The group clustered around that centripetal object, however, is not just more varied in terms of race, culture, and social class than the other two portraits, or more mixed in the cultural prestige of those it depicts. It’s not just more global or transnational in its itineraries. It’s also a portrait of the weaker social ties that facilitate more diverse and attenuated clusters. And it metonymizes still weaker-tie social networks made up of individuals never photographed together by dint of their never having met—far-flung networks of writers, editors, and translators of the sort lately traced by Kalliney, Gayle Rogers, Eric Bulson, and others, joined only by one another’s writings, and by post, telegraph, and radio.[28] In addition, the multilingual networks traced by comparatists such as Rogers and Bulson suggest an axiom about the field-conception they helped displace: that strong-tie portraits of modernism tend toward monolingualism.

This interest in dispersive cultural networks and exchanges could have served a one-way, Eurocentric diffusionist view of modernism as starting among a handful of metropolitan elites and coteries and spreading, radially and belatedly, to peripheral sites. That it has largely helped delimit or discredit such a view results from the growing recognition that modernism is not a property of some self-identical cultural “content” that gets sent out through networks; that it is, rather, a temper or mode that arises largely by way of multi-directional networked exchanges, whether these take the shape of collaboration, translation, misprision, imitation, provocation, appropriation, or counter-appropriation. Recognizing this takes us back, in turn, to the distinction between theory and field. Apropos of this distinction, I suggest that a field’s strength (in the normative sense)—its vitality, generativity, and populousness—may increase as the immanent theory of its central term weakens (in the descriptive sense). What I mean is that the less sovereign a hold the central term has upon the field it frames, the more ferment and recombination can occur within that field, and among more elements. This seems to have been the case with modernist studies, which has flourished in proportion as the term modernism has softened its definitional gaze and relinquished its gatekeeping function—in proportion, again, as we have learned to focus on questions other than, “But is such-and-such a work really modernist?” In fact, as I suggested earlier, the field’s formation qua field appears to have required a weaker theory of modernism than that Harry Levin-era question permits. I value the strong field that resulted from this weakening-in-theory and mostly celebrate that weakening and the chances it affords us. At the same time, I would urge that the more varied and dispersive networks we now study demand renewed attention to how the differentials of power played out historically across those networks and continue to structure how we study and teach them. But my aims here are finally descriptive rather than laudatory, hortatory, or polemical. Indeed, part of what I’m attempting to describe is the emergence of a certain descriptive turn in our field.[29] This would be to recognize the current of weakness in modernist studies’s immanent field-theory and the kinds of projects, including certain strong theoretical ones, such weakness licenses.

Let me offer some examples of weak-theoretical formulations of modernism by scholars, particularly those working in the global frame. Here is Jessica Berman’s way of framing modernism in Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism:

Modernism, I will claim, stands for a dynamic set of relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements with modernity rather than a static canon of works, a given set of formal devices, or a specific range of beliefs. . . . [M]odernist narrative might best be seen as a constellation of rhetorical actions, attitudes, or aesthetic occasions, motivated by the particular and varied situations of economic, social, and cultural modernity worldwide and shaped by the ethical and political demands of those situations. Its rhetorical activity exists in constant and perpetual relationship to the complex, various, and often vexing demands of the social practices, political discourses, and historical circumstances of modernity and the challenges they pose to systems of representation—even as its forms and attitudes sometimes hide this fact.[30]

What I’d most like to note here is the language of the flexible set or constellation. Modernism, for Berman, isn’t a trait whose presence we can certify by ticking certain boxes or by showing that a work fulfills some master-criterion. It’s diffused, rather, through a lattice of nodes and traits, detectable as site-specific subsets of an unnamed set of “relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements” that may take place in a range of locations—aesthetic, rhetorical, cultural, economic, social, ethical, philosophical, historical. A stronger theory of modernism might at least specify some threshold or minimum number of qualifying “relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements,” or of signal “rhetorical actions, attitudes, or aesthetic occasions,” below which a given work might be said to fall short of the designation modernist. But Berman’s definition is unvexed by this classical paradox of the heap—the difficulty of saying when a heap of rice (say) ceases, through the deduction of one grain after another, to be a heap. It is content to let modernism be definitionally and constitutively vague.[31]

We find a similar emphasis on the flexible and the conjunctural in Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity, although Jaji focuses, albeit nonexcludingly, on modernism as an aesthetic category. “I use modernism,” she writes, “as a simple heuristic device for indexing aesthetic choices that reflect self-conscious performances of ‘being modern.’”[32] Notice that Jaji’s locution, “I use modernism as,” treats modernism not as a category endowed with a stable—to say nothing of transcendental—ontology, but rather as a function of the scholar’s self-conscious performance, and implicitly as one use in an unspecified set of credible uses. I’d submit that this is more and more the case with our formulations of modernism; we’re less apt to find the word modernist as a predicate adjective (“Such-and-such a work or figure is modernist”) than as the object of the preposition as in sentences in the subjunctive mood (“Were we to read such-and-such a work or figure as modernist,” and so on). Although both Jaji’s and Berman’s formulations use the indicative mood (Jaji: “I use modernism as”; Berman: “Modernism stands for”), there’s an implied subjunctive to both, an element of the provisional, the probabilistic, or the thought-experimental, as becomes clear in Berman’s passage when she goes on to say that “Modernist narrative might best be seen as a constellation.”

Here’s a final example, from Mark Wollaeger’s introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms:

What is needed, then, is not a static definition that attempts to specify the sine qua non of modernism, but something more like . . . Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, a polythetic form of classification in which the aim is to specify a set of criteria, subsets of which are enough to constitute a sense of decentered resemblance. While some criteria undoubtedly will be formal—fragmentation as a marker of modernism is not likely to go away anytime soon—others will be more conceptual or historical. . . . Relying solely on received criteria will not work, but that doesn’t mean that all the older criteria were wrongheaded.[33]

Wollaeger’s word polythetic, meaning a class of things with many but not all properties in common, dovetails with Berman’s notion of flexible sets and subsets. Although Wollaeger differs from Berman and Jaji in actually calling for a set of criteria, we should observe that these criteria are not then declaratively provided but rather addressed in an implied subjunctive mood, under the sign of what they would be certain or likely or unlikely to be, were they to emerge. And the sense of resemblance such modernist criteria would convey, in their subsets, would anyway be “decentered.” Despite his wish for a taxonomy, Wollaeger leads us to a modernism configured much like Berman’s and Jaji’s: laterally associative instead of vertically definitional; probabilistic instead of binary; subjunctive rather than indicative; and, to borrow a distinction from David James and Urmila Seshagiri’s article on metamodernism, “connotative rather than denotative.”[34]

Unlike the critics I’ve been discussing, James and Seshagiri distinguish between connotative and denotative approaches to modernism in the course of calling for a return to the latter—a return, as they put it, to “a temporally bounded and formally precise understanding of what modernism does and means,” and presumably to a sense, too, of what is not modernist (“Metamodernism,” 88). Yet even as they ask us to go back to a strongly theorized and periodized modernism, they underscore modernism’s auxiliary or instrumental function as a term in the field of study that bears its name. For their main motivation in advocating a return to the denotative approach is not to mount an argument that is conceptually or historically intrinsic to modernism but simply to facilitate the historical speciation and study of contemporary literature that, in novelist Tom McCarthy’s words, “deals with the legacy of modernism” (87). In other words, even the rationale for reverting to the sine qua non model rejected by the likes of Berman, Jaji, and Wollaeger is relational; a strong theory of modernism is to be reactivated, but only to serve weak theoretical ends. I take this to be an exception that proves the rule: that instead of anchoring a strong, all-or-nothing, unified theory of its field, modernism now functions in local and provisional ways, as an auxiliary term that supports other lines of argument not endogenous to its problem-space. In the house of modernist studies, modernism has left off playing bouncer and started playing host.

Yet even in saying so, we should bear in mind how such a host remains tied to older senses and cognates—to the warlike gathering, to the stranger or enemy (hostis), to the victim (hostia). When it comes to fields of study, there can be a disquietingly short distance from hospitality to hostile takeover, from “all are welcome here” to “all are incorporated here,” even “all are appropriated here.” Modernist studies seems likely to keep expanding in the near term, as scholars working in the field draw more figures, works, media, languages, regions, traditions, and historical moments into the field, or into some relation to it. It would be a terrible irony—and, worse, both intellectually and ethically noxious—if a field expansion made possible by a certain weakness-in-theory were to result in a homogenizing triumphalism fed by the annexation of others’ intellectual resources, spaces, voices, and rights-of-way. Even as scholars of modernism seek, with good reason, to make the field more inclusive, we need to be vigilant lest inclusivity become a byword for instrumentalizing the work or presence of others. Cultivating such vigilance would mean creating room for scholars in other fields to traverse and even transform modernist studies for their own reasons, not for the sake of “our” portrait of the field. It would also mean attending to the complex interactions between two kinds of field expansion: one motivated by a sense of responsibility to reach beyond what historically has been a small, Eurocentric, predominantly white male canon; the other exercised as an entitlement to claim expertise in anything, anywhere, at any time. In what cases, we would want to ask ourselves, does the claim of responsibility function as a warrant for the exercise of entitlement? What role might weak theory play in vitiating such warrants? And how might an ethics of humility help us to responsibly weak ways of engaging works, persons, subjects, and areas that we aren’t entitled to engage strongly?


I’d like to step back a little now to air some of my own ambivalences about weak theory. I was trained in the late 1980s and early 1990s and remain committed to much of the project of neo-Marxist cultural materialism and political formalism, and thus to some of the very moves that advocates of post-critique literary studies would abandon as over-chewed, flavorless gum. These include the swerve from appearances to structures; the attempt to trace occulted or non-obvious relations among apparently disparate things; the belief that there is some correlation between exposing the ruses of ideology and, if not neutralizing them, at least deflecting or opposing them more mindfully while imagining alternative ways of being in the world. And although I’m not given to scaled-up theoretical claims, when made well by others they’ve been among the claims that have most inspired me as a critic. I suppose it’s because of that receptivity that I’ve struggled, while writing this introduction, not to pluck strength from the jaws of weakness by claiming, for instance, that modernism in a global frame should be understood not just as an object of weak theory but as weak thought par excellence—as a set of disparate sites and conversations unified by the aim of weakening the monopolistic hold of transcendental truth claims upon us. (Luckily, the paranoid reader in me immediately began to list humiliating exceptions to such a claim, though I then had to resist the temptation to respond by inflating my claims further.) In a less personal vein, I wonder whether the weakening drift of modernist studies means giving up on totality as a category, either normatively or descriptively, and if so whether we’ve thought sufficiently about the analytical and political costs of doing so.[35] Relatedly, some of the largest-scale attempts to weaken modernism—especially Susan Stanford Friedman’s essays defining it as any aesthetic rupture engaged with rapid change in any historical period—entirely decouple modernity, and consequently modernism, from capitalism.[36] Even if your aim in addressing a particular work’s modernism is to produce a low-level description (in Dimock’s phrase) rather than to plumb the political unconscious of its form, just taking capitalism off the table as a necessary descriptor is a game changer.

Max Brzezinski aired such a concern in his 2011 piece called “The New Modernist Studies: What’s Left of Political Formalism?” Brzezinski criticized work done by junior and mid-career scholars of modernism during the preceding decade, singling out Martin Puchner’s Poetry of the Revolution as a case study, for celebrating an incoherent range of “weak utopian impulses” in various writers while evacuating truly committed left-wing writing of its oppositional politics.[37] The essay, with its bent for sloganeering (“Is the Neo in Neoliberalism the New in New Modernist Studies?”), is mostly a lesson in the pitfalls to which strong theory is prone, its way of permitting the hammer-wielding critic to see everything as a nail (Brzezinski, “New Modernist Studies,” 120). But I’m haunted by one accusation of Brzezinski’s, which is that the new modernist studies emptied modernism of its political content in order to consolidate it as a brand, to turn it into a “marketable intellectual commodity” (109).[38] It haunts me not because “modernism” can be allotted the kind of monovalent political content one could easily evacuate, or because I accept Brzezinski’s premise that “the new modernist studies” is anything like a unitary movement. But a brand’s function, after all, is to guarantee a level of quality and identity across multiple product lines. Brands assert a unity where there is none, conferring discrete narrative lines on marketplace expansion and diversification. There’s a risk, at least, that what I have here called the theoretical weakening of modernism is a byword for its transformation into a semantically empty trademark; that modernism, denuded of declarative, definitional, or analytical sharpness, becomes the licensed swoosh, bird, or ghost under which we all do various kinds of globalizing business. And accompanying that risk, another: that the centripetal power of even a weak modernism keeps us in a field-formation that it might be time to think about dissolving and reconstituting around some other term or concept; that we’re travelers trying to warm our hands at a fire that’s gone out, as fires do, and that we’d all be better off moving on.

Because the concerns I’ve named here about weak theory are real ones for me, I won’t dispatch or dismiss them lightly. But if I were to frame a response from a weak theory perspective, I might begin by saying that capitalism, not least in its neoliberal morphology, is the ultimate strong theory without a theorist, the ultimate sovereign field without a sovereign. When we oppose it with an equally totalizing theory of anti-capitalism, we often mass-produce the same findings and refusals we’ve been cranking out for decades, multiplying these across the landscape in a strange parody of the thing we wish to challenge. Yes, there are oppositions that bear repeating and disseminating. But when what you oppose has a death-grip on repetition and dissemination, you may need to shift registers: you may need not only different ways of speaking your opposition, but different scales and intensities at which to speak it. One thing that we encounter in scaling down or tailing off is the degree to which the ostensibly strong ideologies and phenomena that we study and oppose have their own local inflections, subjunctive moods, and lateral assemblages, their own weak theoretical incarnations. The weak theorist would be ideally suited to describe these and, in coordination with others, to describe how our most pernicious strong theories emerge from dubiously scaled-up weak ones. This is to venture that there are specific, non-totalizing ways in which weak theory can get to grips with bad totalities. The challenge here, of course, would be keeping one’s own theory weak rather than permitting it to drift toward doctrine, coherentism, triumphalism, and sovereign self-understanding.

Or toward sovereign models of the subject. Here we do well to remember the field’s past and lingering attachments to strong models of subjectivity—to the artist as autochthonous genius, curse-hurler, puzzle-maker, or remote, impersonal god; to the critic as master decoder and defender of culture. Yet the humanities have lately tended toward countervailing models of the subject as distributed, precarious, dependent on and even co-constituted with other beings, objects, environments. Modernist studies, for its part, has begun attending to objects that exceed the commodity form or exhibit agency and social standing; to subjects that partake, without being objectified, in the uncertain or unactualized being of objects; to subject-object relations that offer alternatives to extractivism and anthropo-narcissism.[39] Should the politics of the strongman continue to surge on a global scale as they have lately done, those of us who work in weakly theorized disciplines such as the humanities will need to test our models of subjects, objects, and their relations under this intensifying pressure. It’s possible we’ll return to bright-line portraits of heroic individual agency, including the strongman modernism I described above as superseded, on the dialectical basis that we get to the future precisely through what appears obsolete. To go this route in modernist studies would mean considering what that old-fashioned modernism might yet have to say to our oppositional moment, particularly to agential ways of opposing aesthetics to capitalism by way of totality. But as I’ve suggested throughout this article, weakness-in-theory is also an undialecticized part of modernism’s past and of its historical emergence as a field of study. Weakness, too, has unfinished work to do. As we go forward, then, we may also—or alternatively—meet the strongman’s recrudescence with an ethics and politics of shared debility, a condition all the more demanding of our engagement as it is unevenly distributed among beings and environments. To take this path would be to root collective work and action in broad, loosely tied coalitions without ideological purity tests and in the entangled differentials of our vulnerability. This need not entail relinquishing the prospect of every kind of strength in every context. And it shouldn’t make us heedless of the differences between kinds of weakness—physical, political, rhetorical, aesthetic, epistemological—or of the limits of their fungibility. But it would mean letting go of strength, including strength-in-theory, as perforce a good. Meanwhile, pensiero debole might be just what guides us to those forms of description, repair, critique, and resistance that are particular to subjects conversant with their own varieties of weakness.

To return to my image of the field as a group of travelers gathered around dwindling embers, maybe the fire was never the point, the dwindling having been the real occasion for the gathering. Where at a hotter, less populous moment the guests would have chanted Pound’s maxim, “Literature is news that stays news,” we may be ready to say other words to one another: modernism is weakness that stays weak.[40]


I’d like to express my gratitude to Chris Holmes and Jennifer Spitzer for organizing the 2014 Global Modernism Symposium at Ithaca College for which an early draft of this piece was written. I’m also indebted to the participants in a New York–New Jersey Modernism Seminar at which a later draft was discussed—particularly to the hosts, Sarah Cole and Rebecca Walkowitz, and to Emily Bloom, Matt Eatough, Anne Fernald, Michael Golston, Matthew Hart, Jeffrey Lawrence, David Kurnick, Celia Marshik, Václav Paris, Victoria Rosner, Michael Rubenstein, Stefanie Sobelle, and Marianna Torgovnick. Thanks, too, to Jed Esty, Heather Love, Gayle Rogers, Avery Slater, Joseph Valente, and other interlocutors at Penn’s Modernist and Twentieth-Century Studies Working Group and to those who attended a session of Yale’s 20/21st Century Colloquium at which I presented this work, especially Seo Hee Im, Carlos Nugent, and Palmer Rampell.

An earlier version of some of this discussion also appears in the last section of the introduction to my book, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[1] R. A. Scott-James, Modernism and Romance (London: John Lane, 1908), 266; Eugene Jolas, “The Revolution of the Word Proclamation,” transition 16–17 (1929): 13; Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney, “What Is This Modernism?,” in More Power to Poets!: A Plea for More Poetry in Life, More Life in Poetry (New York: Henry Harrison, 1934), 106–10, 106.

[2] OED Online, March 2018, s.v., “weak, adj. and n.”

[3] For a small sample of such works, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). Kafer does not invoke weak theory as such, but her critique of bimodal distributions of futurity (between those who do and those who do not “have a future”), her mobile, ambivalent handling of identification, and her dedication to questions as “keep[ing] me focused on the inconclusiveness of my conclusion” may be understood as weak-theoretical elements of her project (Feminist, Queer, Crip, 18).

[4] Jeffrey J. Williams, “The New Modesty in Literary Studies,” Chronicle of Higher Education 61, no. 17 (2015): B6–B9. For a recent skeptical response to post-critique à la Rita Felski and Bruno Latour, including a reading of the new modesty as “not really new and . . . not really modest,” see Bruce Robbins, “Not So Well Attached,” PMLA 132, no. 2 (2017): 371–76, 373.

[5] Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21, 17; Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 150.

[6] See Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[7] See Representations 108, no. 1, especially Best and Marcus’s introduction.

[8] See Nicholas Dames, The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[9] See Levine, Forms.

[10] See Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900 (London: Verso, 1998); Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005); and Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013).

[11] See Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); also Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015). 

[12] See, especially, Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41, no. 2 (2010): 371–91; Heather Love, “Close Reading and Thin Description,” Public Culture 25, no. 3 (2013): 401–34; and Love’s forthcoming Practices of Description.

[13] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 22, 12.

[14] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53, 736.

[15] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv. Another way to put the point I’m making here: postmodernism was theorized in relation to a modernism misrecognized as theoretically strong. As that misrecognition lifted, postmodernism as an analytic proved brittle and quick to oxidize.

[16] Michael Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908–1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), vii.

[17] Bonnie Kime Scott, introduction to The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 4.

[18] Mao and Walkowitz write, “Were one seeking a single word to sum up transformations in modernist literary scholarship over the past decade or two, one could do worse than light on expansion. In its expansive tendency, the field is hardly unique: all period-­centered areas of literary scholarship have broadened in scope, and this in what we might think of as tem­poral, spatial, and vertical directions” (Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 [2008]: 737–48, 737).

[19] Christopher Bush, review of Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time, by Susan Stanford Friedman, Modernism/modernity 23, no. 3 (2016): 686–88, 686.

[20] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 317.

[21] Gianni Vattimo, The Vocation and Responsibility of the Philosopher, quoted in Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, “‘Weak Thought’ and the Reduction of Violence: A Dialogue with Gianni Vattimo,” trans. Yaakov Mascetti, Common Knowledge 8, no. 3 (2002): 452–63, 452. Vattimo’s central statement on weak thought is La Fine della modernità (1985), published in English as The End of Modernity, trans. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

[22] Gianni Vattimo, “Dialectics, Difference, Weak Thought,” in Weak Thought, ed. Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti, trans. Peter Carravetta (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012), 51.

[23] Silvan Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, vol. 2, The Negative Affects (New York: Springer, 1963), 433. Tomkins is also quoted in Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 134.

[24] In an ideal world, this narrative about how ideas have transformed the field of modernist studies would be entangled in something I have not undertaken here: a longitudinal sociology of the field’s institutionalization as seen, both qualitatively and quantitatively, through changes in curricula, hiring practices, conferences, academic publishing trends, etc.

[25] See Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (1973): 1360–80.

[26] For excellent readings of Victorian works by way of weak social ties, see Gage McWeeny, The Comfort of Strangers: Social Life and Literary Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[27] See Daniel Morse, “An ‘Impatient Modernist’: Mulk Raj Anand at the BBC” (paper presented at the University of Pennsylvania’s Modernist and Twentieth-Century Studies Working Group, Philadelphia, PA, 2011); and Morse’s article by the same name in Modernist Cultures 10, no. 1 (2015): 83–98, which discusses but does not reproduce the photo; Peter J. Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Jessica Berman has also discussed the photograph in unpublished talks.

[28] See, e.g., Gayle Rogers, Modernism and the New Spain: Britain, Cosmopolitan Europe, and Literary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Eric Bulson, Little Magazine, World Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[29] For a recent characterization of and contribution to the descriptive turn, see the “Description Across Disciplines,” ed. Stephen Best, Heather Love, and Sharon Marcus, special issue, Representations 135, no. 1 (2016).

[30] Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 7–8.

[31] Megan Quigley argues in Modernist Fiction and Vagueness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) that the heap or sorites paradox and the epistemic and semantic problems of vagueness it indexes are at once key subjects and key qualities of modernist fiction. Quigley’s book is also, by my reading, a monograph-à-clef about its field; we might think of it as bearing the secret title Modernist Studies and Vagueness.

[32] Tsitsi Jaji, Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 15.

[33] Mark Wollaeger, introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger with Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 12.  

[34] David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87–100, 88.

[35] For a compelling recent defense of totalization as the contemporary negation of universalization, see Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, “Peripheral Realisms Now,” MLQ 73, no. 3 (2012): 269–88.

[36] See Susan Stanford Friedman, “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 8, no. 3 (2001): 493–513; Susan Stanford Friedman, “Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 425–43; and Susan Stanford Friedman, “Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 17, no. 3 (2010): 471–99.

[37] Max Brzezinski, “The New Modernist Studies: What’s Left of Political Formalism?,” Minnesota Review 76 (2011): 109–25, 111.

[38] See also Martin Puchner’s “The New Modernist Studies: A Response,” Minnesota Review 79 (2012): 91–96. Jennifer Wicke has, like Brzezinski, written about modernism as a brand but engages more than he does with the historical and ideological complexities of brands and branding; see Wicke’s “Appreciation, Depreciation: Modernism’s Speculative Bubble,” Modernism/modernity 8, no. 3 (2001): 389–403.

[39] See, for example, Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015); Michelle Ty, “On Self-Forgetting: Receptivity and the Inhuman Encounter in the Modernist Moment” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2016).

[40] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934; rpt., London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 29.