In These Times


A journalist friend of mine complained a couple of days ago that “the downside of writing about the Trump era is you spend two hours writing and even worse shit has erupted in the meantime.” I know what he means. In the week since I set out to write this brief note—an invitation to continue, in a new blog forum, the work of Lesley Wheeler’s current posting on “Scholarship and Justice”—the very earth seems to have shifted beneath our feet. Threats have become reality. Neologisms have erupted. Websites have disappeared. Though the task hasn’t altered, the touchstones have changed. If my first vague intention was to push back, high-mindedly, against what one might call “scholarly object envy”—that nagging feeling of guilt that one’s academic specialty is not the now—with special reference to what the methodologies of the New Modernist Studies have taught us about the cultural embeddedness of even the most impervious modernist objects, well, that already seems both redundant and belated.

Across the internet, Yeats and Auden have once more been exhumed to help articulate political dismay; Slate is teaching Fascism 101; LARB is looking for someone with expertise in images of Nazi-punching; pundits inform each other of the historical uses of the phrase “America First”; new restrictions on refugees evoke the “hooded hordes”; 1984 is first on the Amazon best-seller list. There’s never, perhaps, been a time when so many special resonances and responsibilities attached to (in a phrase the organizers of the upcoming Amsterdam MSA conference probably never dreamed would be so urgent) “Modernism Today.”

And yet the very press of the times puts pressure on academic response. Not only are academic institutions, particularly public ones, under pressure across the globe; not only does Theresa May’s threat of a “hard Brexit” threaten both British education and European partnerships; not only is tenure coming under new legislative attack, as are organs of government that support the work of scholars in the humanities and beyond—but the very mental processes we need to mobilize are themselves, in these times, under siege. As Laurent Berlant put it last week (in a note to a brilliant think piece that itself proves the state she diagnoses can be resisted), “the affective and political pressure of crisis disrupts both listening and reading: it forces skimming, flailing, jumping to conclusions, and trailing off into ellipsis, along with the collapse of the difference between obsession and distraction. Crisis forces a scanning.”

If even writing a blog post is a vertiginous affair, what about the deliberate processes of scholarly publishing, and of scholarly research itself? How can we insert the urgency of activism into our models of composition? We know how, if we didn’t earlier, to express this urgency as private citizens—march, volunteer, protest, get local, organize, call, write, share information, support each other, engage, engage, engage. But how do we as scholars of modernism and modernity do so? How can we come together to do so as a community? We invite you to share your thinking in all forms—personal statements, anecdotes, syllabi, snippets of research, proposals for collaboration, exemplary lives—in a blog we’re simply calling “In These Times.” Write to me directly at with submissions, questions, or suggestions.

Debra Rae Cohen