Modernist Periodical Studies and the Transnational Turn

Modernist Periodical Studies and the Transnational Turn

In his 1916 essay “Trans-national America,” Randolph Bourne rejects an anglophone, “Anglo-Saxon” vision of US society and culture. Like many of his contemporary writer-editors in multilingual New York, Bourne’s vision of a modern US literature was polyglot and polyvocal. And yet, with the essay rooted as it is in Bourne’s response to World War I, he continually restates the implications of borders alongside the uncomfortable reality of the strains of “orthodox nationalistic” sentiment vigorously displayed in the US after July 1914. Bourne urges the “young intelligentsia” to transcend “cultural nucle[i]” in their writing. This “spiritual welding,” as Bourne termed it, offered a transnational approach to cultural production that retained a necessary awareness of the limitations of such an idealistic model.[1]

Bourne’s essay was written just two years before his death during the 1918 flu pandemic, a month after the Armistice. During our own recent pandemic, national borders became increasingly hard to navigate, passable only with select passports, often following expensive testing procedures. At the same time, technology allowed us to reach over them, becoming ghostly projections in a living room or kitchen thousands of miles away. To edit a cluster on transnational cultural exchange during a period in which we found our own ability to travel unprecedentedly curtailed was both poignant and uncannily appropriate. This was a process achieved through countless emails, labyrinthine shared Google folders and pixelated conversations illuminated by the glow of laptops; while we were ourselves confined to our homes, our ideas traveled. With three editors who live and work between England, Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and Spain (a geographic spread reflecting our recent and current experiences of precarity and mobility), and contributors based in the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan, this cluster allows us to think about the transnational not only as it pertains to our object of study, but also to our practices as academics. 

In response to those such as Claire Barber-Stetson who have framed global modernism as another manifestation of the ever-increasing expectations and culture of precarity faced by early career academics, Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross have, rather, proposed this “transnational turn” as a call to precisely use “collective research against precarity.”[2] Our work here aligns with this urgent and necessary reassessment of working practices within the humanities that aims to place collaboration at its core. This cluster is rooted in the proposition that periodical studies in particular demands a transnational approach: a) due to the nature of the networks modernist publications cultivated and promoted in their own time, and b) in terms of the scale and resources needed to conduct research that accounts for these international constellations. The pandemic brought this latter issue into sharp relief, with many of us confronting the material challenges of conducting international archival work like never before. When you find yourself without access to your own local library let alone a periodical archive on another continent, the collaborative model takes on a new dimension. As banal as Skype calls between far-flung colleagues and the sharing of scans of unobtainable archival materials may seem in the grand scheme of contemporary world events, rethinking research as a collective endeavour nevertheless stands as a bright spot during dark times. 

Jahan Ramazani opens his essay “A Transnational Poetics” with the image of Gertrude Stein “splaying herself between the spectral context of one nation [the US] and the lived metropolis of another [Paris].”[3] This dual existence was enabled not only by multinational visitors to her salon on the rue de Fleurus or her correspondence, but by her publishing networks. To take just one of her magazine publishers: Broom was variously edited from Paris, Rome, Berlin, and New York. Just as it encourages new modes of collaborative scholarship, the “transnational turn” within modernist periodical studies, and modernist studies more broadly, necessitates an equally urgent reconsideration of our understanding of terms such as global, international, universal and, indeed, transnational. We are called upon to acknowledge the extent to which these epistemological categories are themselves founded upon and often serve to reiterate the idea of Europe and Anglo-America as cultural yardsticks. Lori Cole’s, Madhu Krishnan’s, Kate Hartke’s and Mary Chapman’s essays likewise complicate narratives of modernist temporality. The cluster encompasses Sui Sin Far/Mary Eaton’s publications in Canada in the late 1880s (Chapman), networks of exchange between French, Argentine, and Cuban magazines in the 1920s and 1930s (Cole), Caribbean periodicals of the early Cold War period such as BIM (Hartke), and stretches to the latter end of the twentieth century with African magazines such as Busara and Chimurenga 15 (Krishnan). Here the material dimension of research practices is no less important. In these unprecedentedly virtual times, the remits of Digital Humanities projects, likewise, require scrutiny. In thinking about which archival objects are preserved and made accessible through digitization and which not, contributors to this cluster such as Helen Huang and Krishnan make visible how our seemingly benign choices as scholars aid in the validation and perpetuation of hegemonic knowledge systems. We might think here, too, of Sara Ahmed’s vital “politics of citation”: “Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.”[4] Periodicals enable us to step away from traditional routes through modernist studies, and Franco Moretti’s principle of “distant reading”—favoring as it does the analysis of larger patterns—has been useful in mapping out this terrain.[5] This cluster, however, advocated for a combined approach, where close and distant reading work symbiotically across the contributions. 

The essays presented here scrutinize the term that underpins this cluster. As a term, transnational preserves the suggestion of both movement and immovability, as Chapman’s  essay usefully explores. Transnational retains within it the historical facts of national borders and the degrees of privilege required to move between them. A term active in the early twentieth century, it retains, too, the complex and multifarious histories of national and nationalist politics during the period, as Randolph Bourne’s essay in the Atlantic usefully illustrates. 

Cole opens her piece with a provocative question: “Do we have an international culture?” These words, written in 1925 by Henry Poulaille, continue to resonate today within both the cultural and the academic sphere. The debate that this question provoked in its own time, likewise, provides key anchoring points for our current efforts to problematize the boundaries of modernist periodical networks themselves, as well as those of our field of study and its periodization. What do we mean by international (or transnational in our case)? How do we travel beyond well-worn intereuropean and transatlantic routes, and what do we find when we do so? Does this necessitate pushing against periodization? The answer to these questions, as Cole rightly suggests, is most often found by turning our sights firmly back to our object of study. The editors and contributors to modernist periodicals across the globe were wrestling with a strikingly similar set of definitional problems as they attempted to capture the polyvalency of their cultural moment. Cole reveals the dynamic self-reflexive debates that were crackling within the pages of magazines across Europe and the Americas, uncovering a central tension between transnational ideals and local/nationalist agendas. Within the Hispanic world, this tension hovered specifically between the possibilities of universal and national cultures with, as Cole observes, the Spanish intellectual Miguel de Unamuno suggesting that the term universal is preferable to international, while the Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros proposed that within the Latin American context, the national “was the point of departure for the universal” (Cole). The challenge for these writers and artists was, as it is for us today as scholars of their work, to find a way for art to embody both regional specificity and universal scope.

The homogenizing urge implicit in the terms “universal” and “international culture” always runs the risk of simply further inscribing Europe as the cultural gold standard by which all others are measured. It is a risk signaled in no uncertain terms in the work of Cole, Maebh Long and Kristoffer Lavasi’i, Krishnan, and Andrew Houwen. In both the Latin American periodicals examined by Cole and the African little magazines brought to light by Krishnan, we see an intimate intertwining of quests for aesthetic autonomy and political self-determination. In these instances, the magazine form is revealed to have been a unique medium through which responses to (post)colonial modernities were constructed and circulated. The role of the periodical in processes of national and regional self-fashioning takes on new potency in the Latin American and African case studies offered here—revealing itself to be a form that facilitated the ability to “think otherwise” (Krishnan). Both regions saw themselves involved in a complex attempt to reconcile a desire for the “new” with the powerful aura of “tradition” so long assigned to indigenous cultures. Considering Africa’s historical positioning in relation to the twin categories of modernism and modernity, Krishnan reveals the extent to which these very categories are founded upon this very opposition between “tradition” and “newness” that consistently reconfirms Western (European) models as the standard for the latter. African art was consistently permitted aesthetic currency through its appropriation by European modernists but contemporary artists emerging from the region were denied their own status of “newness.” It is a dynamic that likewise lies behind the discourses of delay and mimicry often found in assessments of Latin American modernism.

In taking up the questionnaire, Cole foregrounds the dialogic modes that the periodical form promotes. It is an element exploited within many magazines within Latin America, for example, with Argentine magazines such as Proa, Martín Fierro, and SUR including not only questionnaires but also open letters and transcripts of debates reproduced verbatim in a mode that resembles theatrical scripts. The US writer Waldo Frank consistently reminded SUR’s founder and director Victoria Ocampo that “a magazine is not only an instrument of expression; it must also be an organ of communication.”[6] These dialogic tactics more often than not aimed to participate in a transnational conversation. The diversity of voices permitted by the multi-perspectival medium of the periodical contributes to an important destabilization of “a monolithic ‘international’ culture” (Cole). Krishnan likewise attends to the formal multiplicity exploited within African periodicals, framing these formal experiments as part of a radical problematization of the production of knowledge systems. Here, assemblage becomes a contestatory mode—with the sheer variety of forms which periodical culture took in Africa representing “a refusal to easily conform to the tradition-modernity binary so often ascribed to African cultural production” (Krishnan). Krishnan, and many of the other authors included in this cluster, highlights the possibility of a re-mapping of modernist periodical networks that not only decentres Europe, but has the power to bypass it altogether.

Indeed, Long and Lavasi’i’s paper shows how the possibilities of re-mapping modernist periodical networks are offered to us through the figure of traveling editors, “voyag[ing] between nations and magazines.” Their paper focuses on one exceptional figure, Ulli Beier, who moved across continents. Originally hailing from Germany and with a degree from the University of London, Beier moved to Nigeria and then Papua New Guinea, where he could not resist founding (and editing) two literary magazines that became culturally influential for both regions: Black Orpheus: A Journal of African and African American Literature (1957–1975) in Nigeria, and Kovave: A Journal of New Guinea Literature (1969–1975) in Papua New Guinea. In this important analysis by Long and Lavasi’i, Kovave is rediscovered as a site of translocal exchanges. Although scholarship on Kovave tends to label the magazine as Papua New Guinean, Long and Lavasi’i maintain that “it is also a Nigerian magazine” (Long and Lavasi’i). Beier clearly built on his previous experience with Black Orpheus to create Kovave. Following in the footsteps of the traveling editor in this case offers a tantalizingly complex picture of how the “cosmopolitan shapes the local,” and vice versa. Beier’s work as an editor lets us see these magazines as “examples of the global south as envisioned by a European, who fostered local scenes while also making them part of a denationalised cosmopolitanism.” Magazines such as Black Orpheus and Kovave should not be seen as cultural products of distinct national literatures; instead, they benefit from a synoptic view and a comparative approach that brings the two magazines into dialogue with one another, as a most important example of global north/south cross-pollination. With their work on Kovave, Long and Lavasi’i push and probe the frontiers of modernist studies, urging us to embrace transnationalism, and to closely follow the journey and dynamics of power “with and within little magazines” through the figure of the traveling editor. 

In his work on the correspondence between Kitasono Katué and Ezra Pound, Houwen raises a similarly important issue regarding the relationship between east and west. It is important to examine the role of local magazines in the formation of a distinctively Japanese modernism, far from the preconceptions of Japanese avant-garde movements as “peripheral” and passive imitators of Western cultural scenes. By looking at the flow of letters between Pound and the editor of surrealist magazine VOU, Houwen shows how the “stream of influence” between Pound and Katué compellingly ran both ways, and how the Japanese artist played an active and distinct role in the formation of the interwar Japanese avant-gardes. It becomes clear, from Houwen’s position, that transnational creative exchanges between artists not only took the physical shape of the global, traveling editor, but also operated through intellectual cross-pollination between editors. While previous scholarship on Kitasono has disregarded Pound’s influence on the Japanese surrealist, Houwen’s expert handling of both Japanese- and English-language material accentuates the bidirectional nature of this poetic and artistic influence, showing how Pound and VOU gave Japanese poetry a primer role for the formation of international modernism. In these transnational exchanges, translation often worked as a creative practice uniting and bringing authors together; in the case of Pound and Kitasono, this looked a lot like a boomerang effect, where what first influenced one came back to influence the other, via way of translation. 

Translation work is, after all, the very essence of these multilingual, transnational literary exchanges: editors traveled, magazines traveled, authors traveled even, but the most transnational component of periodicals culture remains the translated text, the “traveling” text, the text that travels across national, linguistic, and cultural borders, to find new readers. Andrew Thacker’s paper serves as a starting point to ask the following, very urgent, question—given that “little magazines are sites in which translated works of modernism are almost essential to their form,” how can we begin to explore, study, and interrogate the meaning of translation in the transnational networks of modernism? Continuing Eric Bulson’s adage that “no magazines, no modernism,” and building on Rebecca Walkowitz’s “born translated” concept, Thacker goes a step further to propose that “translation and transnationalism are intrinsically connected,” and that to study one means necessarily studying the other. It is clear to see, just by glancing at a few magazines, as we find Virginia Woolf “transferred” to Argentina, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to the US, or Claude McKay to France. Alongside the translations of key modernist texts, the formats, layouts, and general appearance of these magazines equally travel across borders. With them, we might also say that much of the context, ideology, and politics of these magazines gets translated too, traveling across modernism’s permeable borders. 

The notion of authorship, likewise, becomes permeable through an analysis of the unique features of periodical publication in Chapman’s consideration of Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton. In her essay, Chapman deftly explores the idea of “flexible authorship” within the “transnational modern media ecology” of North American periodicals. Chapman considers the complexity of Eaton’s subject position: born in England, the child of a white British businessman and a Chinese mother, Eaton was raised in Montreal and emigrated to the US as an adult. Chapman considers how Eaton’s writings migrated between fin-de-siècle little magazines, railway-sponsored publications, conservative women’s magazines, Christian missionary publications, mainstream middlebrow periodicals and children’s magazines. Noting Eaton’s own “remarkably unimpeded cross-border travel during the Chinese Exclusion Era,” and building on Aihwa Ong’s ideas of “flexible citizenship,” Chapman argues that we might understand Eaton as exemplifying a kind of “flexible authorship,” “signalled by the diversity of her genres, publications, audiences, pseudonyms and narrative.” Exploring moments of syncretization in both the text and Eaton’s own authorial processes, Chapman argues that “Wing Sing on His Travels” (Eaton’s longest work) exemplifies “how both transnational mass print culture and emigration contributed to subjectivity formation in Eaton’s era.” Modern subjectivity, Chapman suggests, offers a “productive instability” for Eaton that was well-suited to the flexibility of the serialized travelogue. 

From “productive instability” to the physical, pressing realities of production, Hartke grapples with rationing, scarcity and the political futures offered by periodicals. Analyzing the wartime publications of the British magazine, Horizon, and BIM, based in Barbados, Hartke raises crucial questions: how can cultural production and politics be separated in times of material scarcity? In what ways can these material concerns be seen to bear on cultural production—in both generative and restrictive ways? BIM and Horizon, Hartke compellingly argues, show the reality of transnational systems, which while “seeming boundless” are no less tied to “systems of imperialism and histories of over extraction.” 

Recuperating the ephemeral Taiwanese journal Le Moulin (1933–34), Huang profoundly questions the extent to which the transnational turn has broadened the scope of modernist periodical studies. Despite the activities of global modernist scholars and high-profile digital humanities projects, there are still large blind spots in modernist periodical studies’ newly expanded vistas. Huang importantly highlights that even attempts to incorporate different modernist temporalities and geographies often end up further “lock[ing] modernist studies into an Anglo-American-European circuit” (Huang). As with Krishnan’s examination of African networks of cultural transmission, Huang maps a modernist landscape that decentres the “Pan-Atlantic” perspective that has long dominated transnational periodical studies. The case of Le Moulin raises important questions about materiality, the politics of digitization and calls upon scholars to profoundly reconsider the “possibility of a coexistence between art and politics in a colonial context.”

The papers in “Modernist Periodicals Networks and the Transnational Turn” propose a fluid view of modernism: instead of studying modernist periodicals from a static, Euro- or US-centric perspective, the scholars in this cluster follow authors, texts, and magazines across continents. This cluster aims to be a starting point for new collaborative projects in modernist periodicals studies, with traveling, intercontinental magazines at their center. As transnational scholars, we are convinced of the benefits of bringing a truly multilingual, multicultural, and expansive perspective to contemporary scholarly approaches to modernist magazines. With this cluster, we hope to open new collaborative routes within the study of transnational modernism, enabled by the material and geographical singularities of periodical networks. 



[1] Randolph S. Bourne, “Trans-national America,” The Atlantic Monthly, July 1916, 86–97, 90, 97. See Cristanne Miller on “polyglot discordances” in “Tongues ‘loosened in the melting pot’: The Poets of Others and the Lower East Side,” Modernism/modernity 14, no. 1 (2007): 455–76, 462. 

[2] Claire Barber-Stetson, “Modern Insecurities, or, Living on the Edge,” Modernism/modernity Print+ 3, no. 4 (2018); Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross, “On Global Modernism and Academic Precarity: A Reply to Claire Barber-Stetson,” Modernism/modernity Print+ 4, no. 2 (2019).

[3] Jahan Ramazani, “A Transnational Poetics,” American Literary History 18, no. 2 (2006): 332.

[4] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 15–16. 

[5] Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013).

[6] Waldo Frank in Victoria Ocampo, Darse: Autobiografía y testimonios (Madrid: Fundación Banco Santander, 2016), 375. Translation our own.