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Modernist Institutions

Rainey’s Institutions: Twenty Years Later

Twenty years after the publication of Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism, our field once again finds itself wrestling with its troubled relationship with institutionalism. But where once Rainey argued, incisively, that literary modernism was self-aware of its own marketability and commodification, cocreating modernism as a discrete institution in its own right, we now find ourselves productively applying this rubric to the field’s institutionalization within academia itself. Just as Rainey’s argument stood against long-held myths about modernism’s fundamental anti-institutionalism, avant-gardism, and resistance to authority, recent reprisals of the “institutional” debate have asked us to apply the same critical hermeneutic towards the academic field of modernist studies itself. At a time when cultural institutions are increasingly under attack, we find ourselves defending academic freedom and the important work of cultural institutions in the public sphere. Simultaneously, we also seek to examine institutions critically, as so many have been complicit in establishing and maintaining systems of power and privilege. Along those lines, the recent dialogue between Michael Shallcross and Luke Seaber, “The Trouble with Modernism,” fundamentally asks for us to examine how modernist studies, filtered through the infrastructure of academe, has itself become institutionalized. Seaber argues that “[a]cademia, in the institutional sense, does seem to require Modernist Studies to take in more and more material hitherto not thought of as ‘modernist.’”[1] Shallcross additionally states that we might even see modernism’s ever-expanding canon as a “quasi-imperialist process of assimilation.” In further exploration of modernism’s institutionalization, we continue to find the dialogic form a productive method of self-reflexive examination; to that end, we hope that the following cluster on “Modernist Institutions” energizes others and enables a continuing debate and discussions of the role of institutions in our time and in our field.

As we again tackle institutionalism—the amorphous underbelly of the modernist project—this cluster not only revisits the role of modernism as a type of institution, but also (and perhaps more importantly) examines how institutionalism itself finds its most appropriate home within modernist studies. By looking beyond institutions towards institutionalism, this cluster argues that institutions are not simply discrete agencies, organizations, bureaucracies, or fields; additionally, we theorize institutionalism as a form of praxis. Looking beyond the institution as a singular exemplar, institutionalism articulates a way of thinking: an epistemological framework through which modernism had to conceptualize itself, and by which we continue to conceptualize modernism. Contributors in this cluster likewise add to our understanding of institutionalism as a theory and praxis—one that, as Michael McCluskey states, privileges “integration over disruption.” As we continue to discuss the strength and power of institutional thinking (a point tacitly made in recent considerations of weak theory), we must continue to suss out just how institutionalism has extended its tentacles into both modernism and modernist studies.[2] But as we do so, we also want to recognize an inherent, and perhaps unexpected, weakness that undergirds institutionalism’s purported strength—the small gaps and chasms of opportunity from which resistance to institutional power emerge.

Literature and the New Institutionalism

While modernist scholars were responding to Rainey’s modernist institutions, a silent revolution was taking place within the disciplines of political science and sociology; the field of “new institutionalism” emerged to explain the complex and mutable position of institutions as they confronted social change. In borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu’s dynamic vision of cultural fields, scholars across the social sciences reassessed the dominant vision of institutions as staid and sluggish, instead reflecting that—much like people—institutions are “potentially contradictory,” allowing individuals inside them to “transform the institutional relations of society by exploiting these contradictions.”[3] In so doing, neo-institutionalism opened a space for viewing institutions as both susceptible to change under the pressure of shifting norms and as agents of change, fostering institutionally inflected cognitive frameworks that alter the structure of the societies of which they are a part. Certainly, one need only think of Winston Smith’s capitulation to Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four to recognize the potentially dire stakes of a unilateral epistemological institutionalism. But more than simply noting an individual as a mental slave to a depersonalized institution, new institutionalism recognizes the dialectical relationship between institutions and society, the former producing its own version of values in alignment with its rigid formal structures, with the later constructing its own set of counter-values to be likewise impressed upon institutions themselves.[4]

Reinforcing the value of “newness” in our discussions of both modernism and institutionalism, Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz’s formative essay on new modernisms paralleled this cross-disciplinary turn towards new institutionalism, denoting the former as engaged in “intensified awareness of what was once taken to be historiography’s fundamental business: acts of leaders and governments, mobilizations of national and international sentiments,” and “transformations of partisan institutions.”[5] Aside from the allusion to institutions, there are other reasons to see a convergence between the new modernisms and new institutionalisms of the 1990s and 2000s. For one, both are meant to be expansionist, not refractory, categories of definition. Mark Granovetter sees the neo-institutional relationship between the social and institutional in terms of their mutual “embeddedness,” rebuking the notion that modernization remodeled social relations to mirror institutions and instead suggesting that institutions are equally responsive to the changing structure of social relations.[6] Institutional expansion, therefore, always carries with it a social expansion, as the dynamics between the institutions and their myriad actors become increasingly intertwined. This penchant towards what Mao and Walkowitz call “vertical expansion” helps define our vision of institutional modernisms in this cluster, as artistic works struggle between their institutional embeddedness and their liminal autonomy; they are never fully subsumed by the institutions which they occupy; they can act on them as well as in them. The embedded nature of the relationship between institutions and actors instantiates a model of historical change homologous to the expansionism of new modernisms, whereby new institutionalism focuses on “continuity rather than change,” and “reproduction rather than transformation” (Lecours, “New Institutionalism,” 11). Within recent modernist studies, renewed scholarly attention on the counterintuitive importance of aesthetic continuity with mass institutionalization has allowed for the expansion of modernism and the decentering of a canon so often framed in terms of its penchant for radical breaks and transformations.[7] Along these lines, a new modernism informed by a new institutionalism continues this trend towards canonic expansion, but with a difference. By framing modernism as an institution that maintains an isomorphic relationship with all other institutions, including social ones, this cluster enables us to reflect on texts and cultural forms born of institutionalism and not traditionally seen in standard canons of modernist cultural studies.[8]

Buttressing a critique of the modernist canon along institutional lines, Bourdieu prefigured neo-institutional arguments by suggesting that we might conceive of the “avant-garde” as a model of institutionalization in the “lowest degree”; by working “against institutions,” such aesthetic movements positioned themselves within alternative “institution[s] of freedom.”[9] Within modernist studies, definitions and notions of institutionalism have expanded to meet Bourdieu’s challenge, mirroring the extension of institutionalisms in the sociological sphere. Along the way, some have envisioned alternative modernist institutional frameworks beyond problematical categories like the “Pound Era” or the “Auden Generation.”[10]

This valuable, recuperative scholarly work, pushing back against patriarchal and Eurocentric visions of literary modernism, weaponizes academic institutions towards the work of retroactive restorative justice. But it is also crucial to remember that, within the historical context of modernism, institutionality continued to be a determinative and oppressive force. Institutions are, overwhelmingly “instruments of national identity,” and this has had a significant impact on the ability for non-white authors to participate in and benefit from the privilege of literary and cultural institutions.[11] A discussion of institutions in the context of modernism must wrestle with the reality that the exportation of institutions abroad, as Pascale Casanova argues, “constituted a sort of extension of European national literary spaces” (World Republic, 115). We see this concretely within Emma West’s contribution on the work of American Chambers of Commerce, which sought to use European (and global) expansion to reinforce American cultural dominance globally. That the most forceful and powerful institutions remained those in the metropolitan and European centers meant that writers in the so-called periphery were made to “struggle in very tangible ways . . . to gain admission to its central precincts,” making them “more clearsighted than others about the nature and form of the literary balance of power” (43). Robert Higney’s contribution on Mulk Raj Anand in this cluster—among others—testifies to the challenging position of writers, who gained admission and challenged the uneven relationship between institutional centers and their peripheries.

Institutional Audiences

Modernism, in particular, deserves unique consideration as an era defined by the rise of the institution. And, as the contributions to this cluster demonstrate, the rise of these institutions led to new institutionalized audiences—both in the centers and in so-called “peripheral” geographical and social spaces. In the early decades of the twentieth century, modern institutions both created and responded to new audiences. The rise of cultural institutions coincided with several crises—political, social, and environmental. But as they did so, they often reified extant structures of privilege. While the League of Nations, formed in the wake of the First World War, attempted to stave off future conflicts by arbitrating disputes between nations, it did so by wielding a paternalistic Eurocentrism. By institutionalizing internationalism, the League of Nations stepped in where individual or national efforts at creating peaceful relations among states foundered. Other organizations, from the General Post Office (see Michael McCluskey) to the Empire Marketing Board (see Emma West) and the American Chamber of Commerce (see Nissa Ren Cannon), navigated the transition from an imperialist geopolitical landscape to greater national autonomy at midcentury; but they, too, did so by relying on and promoting nationalist visions of middle-class citizenship, both at home and abroad.

Several pieces in this cluster examine how precisely dynamics between audiences and institutions are palpable in efforts to reify cultural norms. While the Theatre of the Absurd used shock to awaken its audiences, some institutions constructed their publics and readers to be placidly schooled. Modern institutions correct and refine taste. In some cases, institutions even promote a taste and hunger for modernity. As Emma West points out, “Like nineteenth-century religious missionaries before them, modern institutions like the EMB implicitly sought to ‘improve’ AND ‘correct’ the British public’s inferior taste and behavior, this time through the medium of art and design.” Additionally, Matthew Chambers’s essay demonstrates how the League of Nations Union fostered an audience that would be receptive to its aims, as evinced in Wells’s notion of a “competent receiver” an audience who could “swallow the cosmopolitanism he was cooking up.” Critics also enshrined certain reading practices, as Michael Hart’s contribution demonstrates. Sir Arthur Quillier-Couch allowed students their own archive but ended up arguing for the merits of literary study as a reparative endeavor in the wake of the First World War. Literature becomes welded to projects of national rebuilding, even as supranational political institutions question the ends of nationalism. And, as Evan Kindley’s work demonstrates, even modernists who claimed to resist mass-cultural expectations sought out audiences that might cultivate and embrace modernist aesthetics.[12]

But complicating the unilateral model that privileges the institution’s ability to produce its own audience, recent studies of modernism have transformed the way scholars look at the relationship between European institutions and global audiences. For example, Peter Kalliney’s Modernism in a Global Context looks at the new global communities that emerged from the postcolonial moment and which energized so-called metropolitan centers. In his discussion of literary prizes, writers’ conferences, publishers, and little magazines, Kalliney points out that “Modernism becomes a global cultural movement through the establishment of networks across the world—institutions that have primarily, though not exclusively, served the needs of metropolitan cultural production. Although Paris and London play important roles in this account, their dominance is far from absolute. These cities relied heavily on contributions from colonial and postcolonial intellectuals.”[13] In this cluster, Robert Higney’s contribution and methodology highlights the conflict between Mulk Raj Anand and his English editors, the former writing in barely coded language critiquing the latter’s efforts to constrain him comfortably within nationalist institutional paradigms. Individual recalcitrance toward institutional overreach is a prevalent theme throughout the cluster; while the F. R. Leavis vision of the reading public sought to free individuals from the stultified influence of institutional control, Michael Hart elevation of Quiller-Couch demonstrates the importance of neo-institutional defiance. His citation of the ambulado (or an ambulatory) approach to literary criticism both embraces his power within the institution and seeks to demonstrate institutionalism’s inherent tractability. Much the same can be said for Robert Higney’s citation of the institutional picaro: the figure within the institution who is, so to speak, always tearing down the factory with its own tools.

Institutional Scope

This cluster’s appeal to an institutional modernism is, in part at least, a demand that we come to terms with the scope and scale of institutionalism and the repercussions of its documentarian impulses to amass and control information. The scale of an institution’s power is directly proportional to and embodied by (or is it threatened by?) the records it keeps: records of citizens, treatises, pamphlets, memos, reports, surveys, and data; the ability to collect and deploy such information underscores the importance of institutional infrastructures that aid in its amassment. The increased capability of record-keeping and transmission throughout the modernist period is a way of reifying and acquiring power, even over subjects who are mobile and inaccessible, as Nissa Ren Cannon’s discussion of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany reminds us. And, as other essays in this cluster suggest, access to such materials provide institutional actors a fragment of the power association with such information. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde’s “Obliterature,” notes that modernization is “synonymous with professionalization and with the compartmentalized conception of knowledge on which it is based.”[14] Always merging knowledge and power, Michel Foucault also links what he calls governmentality—the concentration of institutional power that facilitates control over populations—with the convergence of two facets: the apparatuses of state power and the knowledges that fuel the disciplinary mechanisms of that power.[15] The methods by which institutional infrastructures concretize a new epistemological relationship to information, not unexpectedly, correlates with new aestheticization of this informatic sensibility, as demonstrated by scholars like James Purdon, whose Modernist Informatics reminds us of the dialectic relationship between data and power. Thinking even more expansively, in his exploration of how “data can both picture and manage the world,” John Durham Peters theory of “elemental media” doubles down on the materiality of information culture, seeing “media practices and institutions as embedded in relations with both the natural and the human worlds.”[16] As he builds on the rhetoric first deployed by neo-institutionalism, this vision of modernist culture as awash with informational, data-driven, and even statistical knowledge—born of institutionalism—suggests a version of modernism homologous to the institutions themselves, which added complexity to their infrastructural apparatus to manage this new information-rich world.[17]

If it is well-understood that institutional infrastructure has produced a concentrated and centralized form of power throughout modernity, it remains to us to consider the further repercussions of the institutional archival impulse. In Collecting as Modernist Practice, Jeremy Braddock traces the rise of modernism’s “collecting aesthetic” as belying a “general concern with the art’s institutional representation and future authority” (emphases added, 2). Indeed, the rise of institutional modernism, as much as it reminds us of the centralization of power within bureaucracies and agencies, also underscores anxieties about futurity that lie just beneath the surface of such assiduous record-keeping and documentation. To account for institutional scale is not just to account for the breadth of institutional power, but also the diachronic nature of the power that it promises. In other words, the institutional archival impulse speaks to fears and anxieties over the longevity of the powers that institutions project. The establishment of American Chambers of Commerce around the globe at the start of the twentieth century surely speaks to the burgeoning power of American cultural influence, but is it not, also, a nervous recognition of the fragility of such power? Even more to this point, the Empire Marketing Board’s interwar civilizing mission now stands, with the benefit of retrospection, as an antecedent to the weakening of British imperial authority. And was not the League of Nations always a testament to a crumbling sense of global cohesion? It behooves us to recognize that modern institutionalism’s penchant for the archival is itself a recognition of the permeable, fragile nature of such bureaucracies, even as it purportedly attests to the permanent power of institutions. Additionally, artists and writers who work within institutional frameworks do not always fully align themselves with the institution’s self-proclaimed aims; within the relationship between institution and bureaucrats lie momentary fissures and breaks that expose institutional frailty. While there is a tendency to consider these recalcitrant stances of insiders to their own institutions as inherently subversive, we consider that such oppositional positionality is simply uncovering the political unconscious of the institutional project itself. The stability and comprehensiveness promised by centralized bureaucratic systems consequently underscore their instability and ephemerality. As Sven Spieker argues in The Big Archive, the technological means by which modern bureaucracies began the “control revolution” also “carried with them an increased, yet largely unacknowledged, risk of an uncanny loss of control.”[18] As we see in so many of the contributions to this cluster, within the monumental scope of institutional power lies an implicit recognition of institutional dismantlement.

As bureaucracy shakily asserts its own mastery of contemporary records, institutions are likewise troubled by their fixation on their own durability. Foucault notes that the induction of a world “laid out in terms of classificatory forms of intelligibility” equates to a tacit acceptance of a world without cause—a questioning of anthropocentrism in a world devoid of “prodigies, marvels, and signs” (Security, 236). What Foucault calls the “de-governmentalization of the cosmos,” corresponding with the rise of governmental institutionalism, likewise brings with it an acceptance of the limited scope of man’s control over the natural world; the cumbersome documentation of human systems through bureaucratic networks only underscores our inability to manipulate and manage the natural world. For all that institutions do to preserve the human record and maintain detailed histories, the supposedly comprehensive nature of institutional grasp is little but a taciturn secession of man from the realm of planetary history, its passion now reoriented towards sociological control via the exponential growth of institutional bodies. As we consider Carlos Alonso Nugent’s essay in this cluster on the institutional management of the American southwest and the reification of these institutions in modernist aesthetics, we affirm that at the heart of the bureaucratic impulse always lies the suppressed acquiescence to the finite and limited nature of humanity’s planetary supremacy.

While a focus on institutions risks presenting itself as a reclamation of the proverbial “centers” of culture—whether they be geographical or cultural—the essays in this cluster, informed by a neo-institutional instinct, all point to the way that so-called peripheries are necessarily imbricated within and dialectically engaged with institutional centrality. As these essays also demonstrate, far from providing monolithic dictation of cultural values, the institutional impulses towards amassing data, managing audiences, and neutralizing autonomy often work against themselves, exposing a wavering and insecure institutional unconscious. As institutions inherently attempt to erase peripheral figures and spaces, continued efforts to manage and control them inevitably reveal moments of institutional precarity. Reflecting on larger issues of precarity in our field—whether it be in publishing or the academic labor marketing more generally—a focus on the power of social activism within institutional structures can provide new avenues for speaking to not only modernist studies, but literary studies more generally.


[1] Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross, “The Trouble with Modernism: A Dialogue,” The Modernist Review, June 2019.

[2] In “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Paul K. Saint-Amour productively frames modernism’s initial canonization as born of a “warrior masculinity,” now widely contested. As weak theory seeks to undermine what he calls the “institutional prejudices” that had so long sidelined disenfranchised writers, it does so while citing the same forms of criticism that have become so crucial to examining the preternatural strengths and weaknesses of institutions, including Mark Granovetter’s work on weak impersonal ties (Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 [2018]: 437–59, 437, 440).

[3] Roger Friedland and Robert R. Alford, “Bringing Society Back In: Symbols, Practices, and Institutional Contradictions,” in New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, ed. Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 232–66, 232.

[4] See André Lecours, “New Institutionalism: Issues and Questions” in New Institutionalism: Theory and Analysis. ed. André Lecours (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 3–26, 7.

[5] Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008), 737–48, 745.

[6] Mark Granovetter, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness,” American Journal of Sociology 91, no. 3 (1985): 481–510, 482.

[7] Just as Saint-Amour argues against the institutionalization of the “heroic ‘men of 1914’” and the role of that institutionalization in the initial framing of modernism, others have overtly or covertly recognized the centrality of white men within institutional centers, including Rainey and Braddock. Our hope is that one way of decentralizing male institutionalism is by reframing our notion of what institutions consist of; an expansionist (and even weak) model of institutionalism prevails upon us to revisit the actual power of institutions to exercise control and power (“Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” 440).

[8] Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell, key critics in the new institutionalism, outlines the process of institutional isomorphism as the “constraining process that forces one unit . . . to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions,” producing a type of institution homogenization (“The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizations,” American Sociological Review 48 (1983): 147–60, 149.)

[9] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Revisited,” Poetics 12 no. 4. (1983): 311–56, 343.

[10] New nodal networks like those laid out in The Gender of Modernism work to reorient our views of the canon away from these troubling groupings. Additionally, much recent scholarship has made an “institutional turn,” looking to the way that literature informs and is informed by institutional praxis. By looking to art collectors, archives and anthologies, Jeremy Braddock’s Collecting as Modernist Practice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) articulates the importance of modernism’s “consumers” for its institutionalization. Sarah Brouillette’s recent UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press) looks at how UNESCO appropriated literature to pursue ideological aims.

[11] Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. Debevoise, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2004), 105.

[12] Evan Kindley’s Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017) attested to modernism’s infiltration of “bureaucratic administration[s]” that resulted from the dissipating “old model of private patronage” (5).

[13] Peter J. Kalliney, Modernism in a Global Context (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 90.

[14] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–49, 518.

[15] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, and Population. Ed., Michel Senellart. Transl. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador 2009), 108.

[16] John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 20, 377.

[17] James Purdon’s Modernist Informatics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) extensively describes the power of state-appropriated information and the rise of information cultures within modernist literature.

[18] Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 5.