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On Global Modernism and Academic Precarity: A Reply to Claire Barber-Stetson

A dance by Mavo, a multidisciplinary Japanese avant-garde group and one of the chief representatives of Japanese modernism.
A dance by Mavo, a multidisciplinary Japanese avant-garde group and one of the chief representatives of Japanese modernism. Hagiwara Kyojiro, who was associated with the group, appears in the Global Modernists on Modernism anthology. This image was first published in 1924, in the third issue of the group's Mavo magazine.

In the Modernism/modernity Print Plus cluster on “Modernism’s Contemporary Affects,” Claire Barber-Stetson writes probingly of the relationship between the precarious existence of graduate students and early career academics in English and the rise of global modernism. She sees the expansion of modernist studies, of which global modernism is perhaps the signal instance, as “driven­—at least in part—by more pervasive precarity in literary studies as a profession,” and worries about the various challenges it poses to modernism as practiced in English departments. “It threatens,” she writes, “to dilute the term modernism beyond critical purchase, to leave graduate students without sufficient institutional support, and to divert resources from other fields, periods, and movements, including contemporary literary studies.”

In the process of unfolding her account of the state of the field, Barber-Stetson cites our forthcoming anthology, Global Modernists on Modernism, as an instance of the “even greater lengths” to which junior scholars have been pushed, as we attempt to respond to the academic job market’s growing appetite for global modernism. We were delighted to make an appearance in Barber-Stetson’s thoughtful essay—not only because we share many of her concerns about the precarious nature of academic employment, but also because the anthology itself was indeed born, as she suspects, from the unstable and insecure professional lives of early career scholars. And yet, the process of assembling this anthology under conditions of precarity has led us to significantly different conclusions than those of Barber-Stetson.

Where she sees the field’s growing enthusiasm for global modernism as part of an escalating demand from the profession that individual junior scholars do ever more with ever less, we quickly realized the utter impossibility of such a demand. No individual scholar can truly be an expert in “global modernism,” so hopelessly linguistically and geographically expansive is this term. But this is less a limitation of global modernism than precisely where we found its greatest promise. It led us to what has for us been a truly transformative realization: whatever its provenance and institutional location, a serious engagement with global modernism demands that we relinquish our investment in the heroic individual scholar as the baseline of research in modernist studies—relinquish, that is, the kind of labor that increasingly drives junior scholars to the precarious margins in the first place.

Anthologizing Global Modernism or, The Demands of Collaboration

For modernist studies to become truly global, it must become a collective endeavor. Moreover, we want to maintain, it is precisely this experience of collectivity and collaboration that constitutes global modernism’s best defense against the precarious labor and incessant managerialism of the neoliberal university. To understand this claim, it may help to understand the background of the project. We were first approached to edit this anthology in early 2013, as both of us were completing and defending our doctoral dissertations. As we began work, we quickly confronted the full force of Barber-Stetson’s concern: we were both trained, like her, in English departments, although we did have some existing non-English-language expertise (Alys also works in French; Stephen also in Yiddish; and we read various other languages between us). To do this project justice, we quickly saw, we would be taken far beyond what our training had prepared us for.

We realized we would need to draw on the expertise of other scholars who already had the regional knowledge and linguistic skills that we lacked. We have done this in numerous ways, from consultations with colleagues and strangers, extensive reading in published scholarship, and avid attendance at conference panels and talks, to the recruitment of a whole team of translators and collaborators. Our wonderful section editors—a cohort of ten scholars with expertise in languages and regions about which we knew little, who assembled, edited, annotated and often translated texts in their areas of specialty—were particularly invaluable. Of these section editors, only two work or are trained in English departments, and one of those works extensively with the language (Korean) he was called in to edit, despite his nominal affiliation.

Despite the hyperbolic and perhaps hubristic air that the modifier “global” often lends to accounts of global modernism, we sought to approach this task with rigorous humility. The anthology gathers texts—statements, manifestos, essays, speeches, memoirs, and so forth—by modernist practitioners across the arts, which reflect on the theory and practice of modernism. It is an experimental project insofar as we did not begin with an overarching theory of modernism, global or otherwise, which we then imposed on an archive of texts that (conveniently) vindicated our claims. Instead, by working collaboratively with scholars who held a range of specialties, we were able to adopt an inductive method, which began by asking what modernism means and has meant to its practitioners and the scholars who study them, in each location where modernism emerged. The project is therefore committed to arriving at the global by affirming the local. This approach required us to emphasize and privilege the particularity of numerous area specialties as they combine to produce something larger than themselves. Global modernism itself, we think, requires this kind of approach. Its very globality demands collaboration. It cannot be an individual project.

What we did not anticipate was how important this project and its collaborative dimension would become to us as a bulwark against the insecurity and dislocation that characterizes the lives of so many junior scholars. If our contributors represent a range of scholarly backgrounds and fields of expertise, they are also overwhelmingly junior scholars. The majority (seven of our ten section editors) were graduate students when they joined the project; of these two have since graduated and experienced periods of precarious post-graduation employment. One other has been employed outside of academia for the duration of his involvement in the project. Our own positions have been at times highly precarious and to secure employment we have made, between us, five international moves while working on this project. All of us have often felt far from our support networks, and have at times keenly felt the intellectual isolation of living and working far from our established intellectual networks. Most of us have felt the anxiety and despair of academic precarity.

These twinned experiences of precarity and itinerancy are profoundly atomizing. They isolate individual scholars from communities and networks at the moments of their greatest vulnerability, both through geographical dislocation and through the marginalized status that adjuncts and other precarious academic workers tend to be accorded within the university. In the process, they transform people who often entered the academy to find a social context for their intellectual passions into individual entrepreneurs, locked in bitter competition with increasingly distant peers for a vanishingly small number of stable positions. We are produced through this experience as neoliberal subjects—we have all felt it—whose desperate attempts to transform our labor into income (and, in the United States, horrifyingly, into access to basic healthcare) induce us to understand ourselves in increasingly individualist terms. Our struggle to make a living is irresistibly reframed as a struggle to prove ourselves worthy, through individual, heroic acts of scholarly brilliance and teacherly devotion. The structural collapse of a systematically underfunded tertiary education sector comes to be experienced by each of us as a series of individual personal failings.

Collective Research Against Precarity

Although we still often like to think of our research as a rarefied space resistant to the strictures of the market, the reality of contemporary academic hiring practices makes traditional single-author humanities research unusually compatible with this atomizing impulse. The evaluation metrics against which we are constantly measured encourage us to understand our research in terms of individual success and failure. Because both our work and its “outputs” are so often solo, these successes and failures start to feel personal as well as individual. This can make it impossible to keep sight of the more significant fact that scholarship itself is a form of collective endeavor. For many, graduate school is the beginning of this experience. But even for those of us lucky enough to find intellectual community at this stage (as we were), the years immediately after graduation place an acute strain on the possibilities of seeing intellectual endeavors as collective or shared. The demoralizing experience of the job market, the process of watching whatever existed of a cohort’s shared project disintegrate into a set of differentiated and stratified placement outcomes, can make it uniquely challenging to hold onto the belief that we are all in this together.

In this context, it is easy to see how the ambitious scope of global modernism might feel more like a threat than an opportunity. How, after all, is an individual to become a global modernist, especially in a context where language training is increasingly difficult to access in Anglophone educational institutions, and where time is ever more of the essence? The call for scholars trained in Anglophone modernism to radically expand our geographical and linguistic scope might feel like just one more way in which we are being set up to fail, primed to take personal responsibility for structural inequality. Our experience working on this anthology, however, suggested that it might also do the opposite, opening up more collective ways of experiencing our research lives. If one accepts, as we were forced to accept, that global modernism simply cannot be an individual project, then the subfield starts to present itself in a new light, offering a vital defense against the processes of individualization.

In academia, our production as individualized neoliberal subjects is intimately bound up with the expectation that, as scholars, we are the experts: that we have complete mastery of our subject matter. Our monographs, for instance, are legible in this way, as performances of our individual mastery of our respective deep fields of expertise, and in this capacity they function as the credentialing exercises that, so the story still absurdly runs, have got or will get us employment, tenure, and promotion. One of the reasons the global modernist expansion prompts such anxiety is that it throws us into the wide beyond of what we do not already know and cannot hope to master. This can be extremely panic-inducing (and sometimes shame-inducing) in a context where our claims to mastery are the grounds on which our increasingly unsteady bids for employment are built. It can start to feel that our inevitable failure to master all the languages, all the national literatures, that make up global modernism is being used as a way of justifying junior scholars’ unemployment, precarity, or marginalization within the profession.

The damaging and illusory nature of the call to mastery has been the subject of much recent discussion within the profession, with the emergence of so-called “failure CVs” and other calls to be more open about failure as well as success. Typically, these are individual responses, showing that mastery is never complete, even where it seems most unassailable. This project, however, has taught us that the most effective response to the individualizing pressures of academic precarity is not the embrace of failure, but the development of collective forms of academic subjectivity. In this, we have company, as junior scholars increasingly turn to online support networks, reinvest in the classroom as a site of shared social undertaking, and—above all—undertake the most effective collective response to academic precarity: unionization. Indeed, the growing movement to unionize graduate students and adjuncts in the United States, and for unions elsewhere to represent precarious workers more seriously, are crucial developments, signs of a growing awareness that these problems require collective responses. In this sense, academic precarity is simply another iteration of changes in labor relations under neoliberalism, and the response here must be the same as elsewhere: a shift towards collective action and solidarity.

No collaborative research project can rival the power of unionization to combat the accelerating process of adjunctification in the university and the collapse of funding for the humanities. What this kind of work can do, however, is help us to reconceive of scholarship as a collective endeavour, one defined more by the repeated encounter with the limits of our own mastery than by the performance of our best attempts at heroic genius. In so doing, it can allow us to remake our research as one of the places where we resist what is most alienating about the current situation, and build communities within, through and against the exploitative and uneven worlds we inhabit.