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Afterword: Modernism Beside Itself

“We have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot?” 

– Thomas Pynchon, quoted in Zadie Smith, “Love, Actually”[1]

In her essay, “Love, Actually,” Zadie Smith relates her debt as a writer to E. M. Forster. Though the quote above is taken from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), a novel generally considered to be paradigmatic of postmodernism, Smith dismantles the distinction between the anarchic, chaotic style of Pynchon and the ironic, realist style of Forster. She explains that while Forster’s novels are undeniably more straightforward than Pynchon’s, they have nonetheless absorbed the revolutionary complexities of modernism. Unlike the polished novels of Jane Austen, Forster’s works, influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and the modernist crisis of representation, express the unknowability of human motivations and desires. She states, “[Forster] allowed the English comic novel the possibility of a spiritual and bodily life, not simply to exist as an exquisitely worked game of social ethics but as a messy human concoction. He expanded the comic novel’s ethical space (while unbalancing its moral certainties) simply by letting more life in.” This capacious field of human drama is notable for two reasons: first, that it seeks to represent “those exiled from a societal network;” and, second, that it demands strong affective ties from its readers towards the “messy human concoction” that is Forster’s fictional subject. Forster extends the domain of the novel from a closed universe of rational, moral certainties to the wide-open expanses of felt bodily and affective “muddles.” That Forster usually fails to clarify and give fine-tuned form to his characters’ dilemmas is foundational to what Smith claims to be his ethics, which she summarizes as: “When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good).” There is slippage here between ethical, social and affective ties as represented in the fictional worlds of Forster’s novels, and those of the reader. And that is the point: affect is a relation, an in-betweenness, in which readers inhabit a literary world, adopt its given style, test out its “multiple interpretive possibilities,” and come to value its premises, to love it, or possibly to hate it, but certainly not uncritically.

Fig. 1. Gerhard Richter, Woods (5), 2005, oil on canvas, 77 5/8 x 52 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I dwell on Smith’s relation to Forster at length here in order to draw out in miniature the affective and critical circuits between what is called the contemporary and its modernist past. As the range of provocative critical contributions gathered together in this cluster on “Modernist Affects and Contemporary Literature” demonstrate, our affective ties to modernism might be said to be in a muddle, one that is productive, open-ended, and shot through with a wide range of interpretive possibilities and colliding affects. David James’s introduction admirably surveys the many vectors of modernist affect, beginning with the disciplinary desires underpinning the recent temporal and spatial expansion of modernism. It is indeed hard, as he says, to “row back” from the new modernisms, since the desire to “liberate” modernism from “the perceived straightjackets of periodization” dovetails neatly with twentieth-century feminist, queer, anticolonial and antiracist political movements with their anti-hierarchical energies. James cautions that two risks are inherent in this move.

The Risks of Expansion

The first risk is the appropriating impulse that “collects” modernisms from around the world and from below to add to Western prestige. At the same time, the label modernism, with its radical aesthetics and formal experimentation, lends a cosmopolitan “cachet” to the newly found global object or contemporary style while also erasing the context of the object or style it describes.[2] This narcissistic worldview threatens to abstract the term “modernism” by evacuating a sense of its organic emergence and local and regional particularities. “Modernism,” used this way, feels opportunistic or, even worse, reified. Here, the reader’s anxiety level rises and not without cause. As Claire Barber-Stetson’s essay makes plain, the appropriative urge can make us appear to be complicit in the neoliberal university that requires fierce competition amongst the many disciplines for scarce resources and necessitates ever-more expansive arguments for our continued relevance and, indeed, growth.[3] Certainly, we need to speak the language of the academic institution at times, but this is not the only language modernist critics speak nor is it usually the primary factor motivating our work. An affective rerouting back through modernism can disrupt this reductive sense of modernism, which is precisely what Barber-Stetson does. She tracks an affective feedback loop back to the insecurities and adversities of the modernists themselves. Through a reading of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry, she shows how the home front provides “bitter safety” for soldiers who, far from their fellow soldiers in the trenches, are “unfriended” by civilians. At the same time, this “experience of insecurity” makes clearer the short-comings of our “zone of safety”—allegorizing the neoliberal university as a false safe-haven from the wider social, political, economic and actual wars—in a manner that may very well stimulate for modernist studies new affiliations, intense camaraderie, and a renewed clarity of purpose.

The second risk—inherent in the appropriative urge—that James warns of in his introduction is the danger of diluting and possibly obliterating the very concept of modernism. What exactly is modernism, now that it is no longer canonical, now that we see it everywhere, including its afterlives in contemporary literature? Many of the contributors in this cluster topic take up this issue with intriguing results. They point us towards a “metamodernism” that questions our investments in the term “modernism” for our disciplinary practices. Alys Moody explores the continuing practice of aesthetic autonomy, both in contemporary fiction by Ben Lerner and others and in the strangely unemotional emotions of literary scholars. In her assessment, professionalism weds the “purported objectivity of scholarship with the subjectivity of aesthetic response.” The lessons of T. S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, T. E. Hulme, James Joyce, and others, who adopted in their writings and self-presentation a pose of studied indifference, have been institutionalized as the professionalized affect of contemporary literary scholarship. We see this pose manifest in “objective” practices such as close reading and ideological critique. In contrast, Beth Rosenberg finds in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet a direct appropriation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist anger, albeit inflected by an historical—metamodernist—self-reflexivity. Demonstrating how Ferrante thinks both through and against Virginia Woolf, Rosenberg argues that Ferrante presents female friendship through an aesthetic prism of collective anonymity and anger as an enabling condition for art. Muddying the waters still more, Doug Battersby draws our attention to the how allusions to well-known modernist texts prompt the pleasure of recognition as well as insider critique, but might also raise interpretive uncertainties. In John Banville’s The Sea (2005), he argues, the main character’s stream of consciousness alludes to Kurtz’s genocidal fantasies in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898). Battersby asks if the protagonist Max is making a sincere critique of contemporary imperialist ideologies—or is the narrator, rather, covertly satirizing Max by comparing his petulant rage as he watches a television program about elephants on the Serengeti with Kurtz’s dark adventures in the Congo?

The uncertainty raised here is a function of the multiple interpretive possibilities of reading modernism in the contemporary moment. Should allusions to modernism be understood within the diegesis of the narrative or are they performatively aimed at the reader’s historical comparison to the earlier text, in a metacritical move? Or are they both? To add yet another layer to this conundrum, this interpretive uncertainty is echoed by the affective ambiguity in modernist texts themselves, with Conrad’s novella epitomizing this oscillation of knowing and doubt. Modernism, in this guise, says Battersby, is “a site of extraordinary expansion of the formal and affective possibilities of fiction, but also as archive, history, praxis which cannot be untangled from complex ideological currents.”

The Values and Legacies of Modernism

The debate about what modernism was, whether it is still being practiced, and how it animates contemporary writing, Kevin Brazil reminds us, is often an unacknowledged question about value. He worries that the current resurgence of metamodernist writers reproduces the mid-century institutionalization of modernism rather than the historical movements themselves. When academic versions of “high” modernism serve as the criterion of literary value, contemporary writers seem woefully belated and “behind in quality.” To be compared to modernism is to be embarrassed that the new cannot be anything more—and usually much less—than the old. Turning to Derek Attridge’s theory of literary ethics, Brazil admits relief when Attridge sidesteps the ongoing debates over whether a contemporary work of literature is modernist or postmodernist by calling these labels “inconsequential.” Rather, Attridge says, “what is important is the registering of the event of meaning that constitutes the work of literature.” For both Attridge and Brazil, it is precisely how the reading event defamiliarizes our experience and understanding of the world that needs to be attended to, rather than finding instances of the (same, old) modernism everywhere.

Addressing the question of value from a different angle, Neil Levi separates reading the event of modernism from contemporary fidelity to the institution of modernism. Rather than adhering to received notions of “great” art, Levi writes that the event of modernism “demands an investigation into how values might be changed.” The modernist event, as Levi casts it, is that of the work of art itself: one that is capable of transforming the reader’s thinking at deep structural and formal levels as well as in terms of the affective and ideational content. Connecting the event of reading to Walter Benjamin’s emancipatory obsession with reading otherwise, Levi locates the modernist event specifically in the resistant, utopian sense that “things should be different.” Finally, Urmila Seshagiri’s essay returns us to the scene of the modern, 1922, to historicize the event of modernism before its institutionalization. Given the uproarious nature of its initial impact, among artists and writers and in the wider public, modernism remains a crucial touchstone for contemporary writers, whether they admire or condemn it. In either case, it remains “a dynamic agent of disruptive change.” This disruption, however, can be expressed as a backlash against modernism. In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (2001), modernist detachment results in thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis’s false accusation of rape against Robbie Turner, which causes irreparable damage to Robbie as well as to her sister. Modernism’s lack of moral certitude here becomes anti-social behavior. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), Seshagiri argues, modernist style serves as an indexical marker for characters’ individualist alienation, expressed as a steadfast refusal of tradition, community and family. Modernism here takes on a melancholy cast. Expressed as a gesture of refusal—“things should be different”—this pose appears self-indulgent and even self-destructive. Modernism thus comes full circle in its contemporary range of significations. Each of these critics’ investments in affective and aesthetic interpretive frameworks for reading modernism provokes deeply felt and necessary questions of value.

Taken as a whole, the cluster contributions perform the very dangers that James, in his introduction, warned us of: modernism becomes contradictory and diluted, ranging from an exciting utopian and experimental radicalism in Levi’s essay to an apolitical quietism in Seshagiri’s. This is, I propose, a measure of modernism’s exceptional level of generativity and its affective strength, exemplified in the very way in which its wide-ranging aesthetic practices undermine any hard and fast story about it. Affect is a “sustained state of relation,” a capacity to move its subjects to both act and be acted upon by the material in question.[4] That is, works of art—modernist literature, in this case—both compel our attention and desires but also encourage us to act upon them, whether by writing, teaching or reflecting. In the case of the contemporary writers discussed here, modernist literature exerts a palpable pressure to spark rewritings, whether critically or in homage. Moreover, the lines of affinity traced in this cluster issue are far from straightforward. Though contributors have discussed important historical differences between early, high and late modernism and the contemporary, their comparisons are hardly linear or fixed. When we consider affective ties, we trouble the boundaries between the texts at hand and our subjective desires, between perceiving selves and external objects, past and present, and between our experience of being moved to action and reflecting and writing at leisure. To use a familiar trope of modernist art, we enter the vortex. Our affective engagement spins, eddies, and is shot through with disparate cultural fragments, personal and historical memories, and desires.  

Modernist Affective and Aesthetic Entanglements

And that’s just considering the part of the contemporary reader. Let us add to the affective muddle the extraordinary aesthetic period of modernism, which should be understood as part of a vast socio-political transformation underway in the early twentieth century: from the feminist, gay and workers’ movements to early civil rights and decolonization waves. To return to Zadie Smith’s tribute to E. M. Forster with which I began, let’s consider his participation in the Bloomsbury Group. As the editors of the volume Queer Bloomsbury make plain, the Bloomsbury Group tried to live their aesthetic vision and to create, at the level of social, affective, and material lived arrangements, new possibilities for art: “The personal lives and artistic and erotic entanglements of [Bloomsbury] . . . [are] inseparable aspects of the same phenomenon.”[5] The loosely associated Bloomsbury Group shared living spaces, late night conversations, open and multiply-oriented sexual relations, and cross-disciplinary intellectual and artistic endeavors. To conclude, I claim that it is precisely these queer social, affective and material lived arrangements that produce the expanded scope of literary representation in Forster’s work. Further, this widened purview is what allows Smith to reconfigure the grounds of aesthetic and affective possibility in her novels to include the black diaspora.

The term queer, as it was used in the early twentieth century, had none of the valences of political resignification it now carries. However, Forster may be understood as a queer artist, in the sense that Robert K. Martin and George Piggford claim for him, as someone who “seeks to disrupt the economy of the normal.”[6] The insistence in his work on the “peculiarities of passion,” powerful and non-rational disruptions of everyday life, reflect early twentieth century meanings of “queer”: strange, odd, eccentric, unconventional, touched, obsessed, absorbed or interested to an extreme or unreasonable degree (Martin and Piggford, “Introduction: Queer, Forster?,” 4). As a result of these passionate affinities in his novels, as Smith relates above, misunderstandings arise and characters experience being made a fool of, subject to ridicule, cheated, puzzled, flummoxed: they admit to bafflement. In this sense, Forster’s famous “muddles” produce queer affects. Character motivations are neither heroic nor straightforward nor clear. They are often inaccessible to the characters themselves. Misunderstandings result in plot intentions going horribly awry. This unworking of literary form and character unsettles normative social hierarchies in terms of gender, race, class, nationality, imperialism and militarism. Moreover, it unsettles history itself. The meaning of “queer” is never fixed or fully present because the term is perpetually in contest between its pejorative and obliquely transformative meanings. Through this struggle, “queer” opens the present to the past in a form of temporal and spatial warping.[7]  The very notion of “queer” connotes the transverse, oblique, crosswise, and obstructive. “Queer” slows us down, pins us to our bodies, and to the materiality of our surroundings. It insists on the imminence of matter and meaning, bodies and words: how subjects are able to manifest themselves in the world, given the long misogynist, racist, and homophobic history that accretes social constraints even as it materializes bodies. But how do these affective and social reconfigurations transform how we create and perceive new aesthetic possibilities?

Smith’s On Beauty and Forster’s Howards End, on which On Beauty is based, examine collective modes of sensing beauty, through multiple appreciations of a painting (Jean Hippolyte’s Maîtress Erzulie [1948]) and, in Forster’s novel, of music and literature. In both, aesthetic appreciation is materially grounded in differently gendered, raced, classed and migrant bodies. Both novels imagine art’s potential “to produce meaningful and often unpredictable attachments across lines of difference . . . [this embodied aesthetic] remain[s] firmly rooted in the politics, social interactions, identity categories, literal bodies, and, generally, the materialities of everyday life.”[8] It is this way of thinking aesthetics that enables, as Ewa Ziarek recently put it, the “resignification of damaged bodies and objects previously expelled from the realm of meaning.”[9] Smith’s On Beauty demands a rethinking of the aesthetic as a transitive process, one that can transform abjection—the atrocities of slavery and racism—into new forms of collectivity and new modes of remembering the past. In this, she expands the social network that Forster tentatively, nearly a century before, had widened, though admittedly not enough. (Leonard Bast is killed by a falling bookshelf, but his son is granted admittance into the artistically minded middle class.)

Both writers, Smith and Forster, ask: How can the revisionary process of writing and reading expand the possibilities of perceiving and valuing beauty, of all sorts?  How do aesthetics mediate politics and knowledge without being reducible to either? On Beauty is devoted, as Dorothy Hale has explored, to the exploration of cultural varieties of artistic production and their relation to power: “[T]he lives of Smith’s socially diverse characters are filled with aesthetic experience, and their individual attempts to understand that experience . . . highlight the power relations and social alliances that give meaning to even the most embodied sensory perceptions.”[10] Those power relations and social alliances are broader than those between a husband and wife, between competing perspectives on art, or between two privileged women friends of color. Smith’s novel negotiates between the economic and the aesthetic, the West and its Black Atlantic underside, the citizen or visitor who belongs and the foreigner who is merely tolerated, given low-wage work, and, at times, feared. On Beauty, then, “widens the scope of its own context, toggling between moments of personal (aesthetic) experience and shared intimacy, and broader institutional (and global) politics through which conflict over affirmative action, diversity, and multiculturalism are constantly played out” (Brickley, “On Beauty,” 77). And this expansive scope of social and aesthetic possibility occurs first in Bloomsbury and then, after decolonization and African-diasporic struggle in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere, it is reworked, rerouted, and reconfigured in Smith’s novel. Queerness and Afro-diasporic postcoloniality enable modernist affects to expand the purview of the social. Into this widened arena, the novel too expands. To paraphrase the Thomas Pynchon epigraph with which I began: What capacious field of human drama, what scales, schematics, feedback, connections, errors, functions and plots has modernist art and affect helped, and continues to help, to spawn?  Modernism recurs alongside the contemporary, in twisting, queer, and raced proximate relations to produce multiple interpretive possibilities, including a reappraisal of our own judgements and affective investments in modernism itself.


[1] Zadie Smith, “Love, Actually,” Guardian, October 31, 2003. Ellipses in original.

[2] There are many debates concerning global modernisms: see, for instance, Eric Hayot, “Chinese Modernism, Mimetic Desire, and European Time,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger with Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). 149–70; and Laura Winkiel, Modernism: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[3] Other critical responses to the new modernist studies as complicit in the neoliberal university include Max Brzezinski’s “The New Modernist Studies: What’s Left of Political Formalism?,” Minnesota Review 76 (2011): 109-25, and Joseph Slaughter’s “From Atlantic to Global,” Roundtable Response, MLA Convention, New York, January 4, 2018. See also Martin Puchner’s response to Brzezinski, “The New Modernist Studies: A Response,” Minnesota Review 79 (2012): 91–96.

[4] Gregory Siegworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Gregory Siegworth and Melissa Gregg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 1–25, 1.

[5] Brenda Helt and Madelyn Detloff, “Introduction” in Queer Bloomsbury, ed. Brenda Helt and Madelyn Detloff (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 1–12, 1.

[6] Robert K. Martin and George Piggford, “Introduction: Queer, Forster?” in Queer Forster, ed. Robert K. Martin and George Piggford (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1997), 1–28, 4.

[7] See Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 20.

[8] Briana G. Brickley, “On Beauty and the Politics of Academic Institutionality,” ariel: A Review of International English Literature 48, no. 2 (2017): 73–100, 75.

[9] Ewa Płonowska Ziarek, Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 6.

[10] Dorothy J. Hale, “On Beauty as Beautiful?: The Problem of Novelistic Aesthetics by Way of Zadie Smith,” Contemporary Literature 53, no. 4 (2012): 814–44, 815.