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Injurious Recipes: A Few Ingredients for a “Dangerous” Modernist Studies

Recently, while sifting through a long and detailed academic book contract, I found a list of items the publisher required me to exclude. A wonderful bullet point mandated that there be “no recipes or formulae or instructions” that “if followed accurately” would be “injurious to the user.”[1] I have enjoyed hearing friends’ reactions to this mandate, several of whom have asked: but, seriously, what is this referring to? Since contracts, much like syllabi, always have ground-rules based on problems caused by previous people, I wonder if this press had a bad experience with a book that included instructions for making some kind of contraband. No longer will they permit authors to concoct the blue meth recipe from Breaking Bad or to quote that part in Fight Club that teaches you to make napalm from gasoline and orange juice.

Contracts, of course, are always filled with “c.y.a.” measures crafted to avoid legal liabilities. But this particular contractual requirement inadvertently calls attention to another assumption: academic writing is typically entirely harmless. One reason this contract line sounds absurd is its implication that there might be any real danger in a book by a literature professor. If one of my book’s “users” were to accurately follow a formula for interpreting a poem, could they really hurt themselves? I certainly hope not.

But this contract line also feels like a challenge. If there is no sense of danger in my scholarship, if readers are completely “safe” when handling my work, then maybe I need to reimagine my topics of inquiry and modes of expression. Much of my research agenda has been devoted to integrating modernist studies with peace studies in work that intends to recover fresh alternatives to violent conflict and systemic injustice. To the extent that this scholarship advocates for pacifism and nonviolence and for alternatives to the ideological thrall of the nation-state, it raises opposition to powerful, destructive forces that consume us. Opposing such forces has the potential for incurring risk at any point where power feels threatened. But expressing these ideas to make explicit their relevance for today, to challenge power structures by calling for change, and to communicate in ways that are interesting beyond a subset of academic specialists remains an ongoing struggle and aspiration. As a contribution to that struggle, I am offering here a few ingredients that I try to use when cooking up “dangerous” scholarship. Like any recipe, this list is meant to be suggestive rather than definitive, and modifications or adjustments by others are highly desired.

Two other caveats need mentioning. First, when speaking about scholarship that entails danger, it must be acknowledged that risk is never evenly distributed. People working within conditions of precarity or other systemic injustice and abuse may feel constantly at risk, and I do not want to be cavalier about those realities. I speak as someone with a relatively high amount of privilege and thus feel all the more compelled to take risks that might enable others to flourish. Second, I do not speak from a place of having figured this out or from any sense of certainty that I am adequately modeling the risky, dangerous scholarship that I am proposing. Articulating here a few of the ideas that animate my scholarly agenda is a suggestion for others and also goal-setting for myself, a reminder about what I hope to pursue and a commitment toward those ends. Sharing recipes is a way to extend the table, inviting more companions in our collaborative efforts to use academic work for social change.

And so, a few ingredients. Additions or subtractions are encouraged. Adjust proportions to taste.

Mobilizing the Guild for Social Change

One of the most common complaints about academic writing is its supposed insularity. Depth of knowledge and communication with peers often involves specificity and technicality in how we speak and write, and voices from both outside and inside the academy have accused scholars of writing to an unreasonably small audience. Sometimes those criticisms about jargon, irrelevance, obscurity, and scrupulousness are worth heeding. Sharpening ideas and clarifying prose are essential practices for all of us seeking to communicate well.

And yet, we should not forsake the power of our peer conversations, those admittedly limited discourse communities of shared learning that enable a common purpose. Within the guild, our scholarly conversations can use the resources of modernist inquiry to mobilize for social change today. Modernist studies has particularly valuable resources for dissecting and interrogating totalitarian ideologies, structural injustices, and the roots of war and violence—problems from the previous century that have metastasized in the present age. There is power in scholarship that urges a scholarly community toward action, disseminates praxis with our students and the communities in which we live and work. This kind of mobilization is dangerous, especially if its influence is felt by those in power outside our guilds who are threatened by change. As academic writers, we are always seeking to make interventions in the field by producing new knowledge and moving the conversation in new directions. We might also consider how we intervene by encouraging political action through the shared labors of our guild.

Advocating in Risky Ways

What constitutes a risky form of advocacy can depend upon the specific context where we work. The power of boards, trustees, administration, state and local government, religious affiliations, etc, can all play significant roles in constraining academic voices for change. In their compelling and urgent book Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism (2021), Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly argue for a scholarly praxis that resists the “neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university” from within, and they observe that through “technologies of neoliberalism, the university imposes a range of barriers, challenges and—what we conceive of as—forms of backlash upon those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism” and other kinds of activist scholarship.[2] Institutional pressures conspire against many efforts toward scholar activism, and friction or conflict can arise when the values of the neoliberal university are challenged. Scholarship that provokes backlash is dangerous and may involve risk. But if our scholarly activism puts us in conflict with the repressive dimensions of our universities, then we may be on the right track.

One of the most immediate places where risk, conflict, and backlash can be felt is in the classroom, as students are opened to new ideas, motivated toward political action, or empowered toward better understanding themselves. In the small, church-related university where I teach, these transformations often occur among students whose religious and political beliefs move away from their family’s, and sometimes as they more fully understand and claim their sexual, racial, or class-based identities. I invite students to think about issues that deeply matter to them and to turn those political concerns into questions that they will explore alongside the literary works we are studying. In their writing projects, I ask them to think about how they want their audience to change, to think and live differently because of what they have to say about novels and other course texts. In recent years I have sought more opportunities in my classes for sharing my writing with students, not only published works but also work in progress in order to model the arduous and (occasionally) exhilarating labor of scholarly production. Having them read my own work in progress is an effort to provide an example, not a template for the kind of finished product I am seeking to evaluate but a model of my own ongoing struggle to take risks and to advocate for change within my academic setting. Joseph-Salisbury and Connelly endorse Stuart Hall’s maxim to “struggle where you are” and support critical pedagogies that create a “classroom-to-activism-pipeline” (29–30). Sharing work in progress with students is a way to join them in collaborative scholar-activism. It risks vulnerability and surrenders a certain type of authority. But it also acknowledges how we are collectively engaged in advocacy within the same institution and potentially subject to backlash as a result.

Historicizing Richly while Explicitly Naming Current Values

The modernist injunction to preserve art for its own sake, vividly and influentially articulated in Virginia Woolf’s criticism of the “incomplete” novels of her Edwardian forebears, remains an important reminder to avoid merely utilitarian concepts of art.[3] But without abandoning the specialness and gratuity of literary works, we can turn to literature as a resource. If lives and political imaginations can change, grow, develop, or otherwise affect the world, then literary studies may indeed be dangerous. Michaela Bronstein eloquently argues for an openness to transhistorical encounters with modernism, writing that “modernism’s apparent turns away from history are not a deflection of politics in favor of art, but instead an openness to the unknowable, a vulnerability before the unpredictable politics of the future.”[4] Using the intellectual tools of our field for more explicit activism might invigorate the missing element of danger that arises from embracing those unpredictable political imaginations. By thinking of literature and art as a “resource” for our political lives, we might consider how such works develop our sensitivities to the world and to other people. I would not wish to see literary works only as utilitarian devices for political messaging, but we might continue advocating for how the world is altered by what we study and how we write. The tools of literary studies have important contributions to offer political theory by giving nuance and texture to the concept of “imagination” that is often invoked by political theorists.[5]

Modernist studies is particularly fertile ground for cultivating resources that can benefit our current volatile age. The anxiety, uncertainty, and political turbulence of the previous century continue to roil our current era, along with the growing threats posed by our climate crisis. The social turmoil of a century ago is not identical to what we are facing today, but the similarities mean that valuable resources can be found in the creativity of the past as we look for ways to    expand, refine, or deepen our political imaginations.

Developing Slowness, Thoughtfulness, and Rest as Political Acts

Though many modernist works register the rapid acceleration of modern life, the formal challenges they present typically benefit from slowing down and carefully meditating on their intricacies, subtleties, and mysteries. There is, of course, an ever-present concern about elitism with such works since their demands require time and education. But works that make us slow down, meditate, and develop knowledge can also supply a political counterweight to our constantly accelerating, late-capitalist Information Age. The constant need for speed and productivity, multitasking with multiple screens, can feel like the normal reality of current existence and has consequences in the neoliberal academy as it does in every other workplace. Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber assert in The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016) “that adopting the principles of Slow into our professional practice is an effective way to alleviate work stress, preserve humanistic education, and resist the corporate university.”[6] They argue that many aspects of university work could be altered by slowness, by integrating with our students’ lives and taking delight in our research writing.

Against our current media discourses that prioritize disposable content, “hot takes,” polarized zingers, and rapid consumption, we can pursue depth of thought that invites contemplative and meditative ways of being. Scholarship sometimes indulges in discursive styles that are gnomic and inaccessible, obscurantist and equivocal, but there is also a danger in market forces driving styles of expression. Our books, essays, and multimodal works can explicitly encourage slower, more meditative, and deliberately thoughtful engagement with the world as acts of defiance toward the drastic acceleration of other public discourses. Alexis Pauline Gumbs argues for the power of slowing down as essential to individual and collective action, and she writes that “as a daughter of immigrant insomniacs who sleeps with one ear open, I think this question of sleep is crucial . . . rest is resistance and sleep is political.”[7] In my classes I strive for pedagogies that challenge the standard practices that have been established by other fields. Instead of exams based on individual performance during pressure cooker time constraints (which is the preferred mode in the natural sciences), I have been developing examination practices that are slow, lengthy, collaborative, and recursive. I want to change the pace of education, resisting the drives toward speed and volume and focusing instead on contemplation and depth of understanding. Putting on the brakes while being forced into the fast lane is dangerous. But as modernist scholars we may insist on the value of contemplation and reflection, even as we name how our scholarship seeks real world change in real time.

Generating Pleasurable Scholarship

To speak of the pleasures of the text may seem different from ingredients that are injurious or dangerous, but much in the ways that slowness and rest can be modes of resistance, pleasurable scholarship can be disruptive. There is a singular delight that comes from reading a rich work of scholarship where the movement of ideas and analyses harmonizes in a prose form that provokes and excites. Eric Hayot has endorsed the rhetorical power of using literary devices such as suspense and tension in our scholarly prose, and he notes how these devices can captivate readers and make our arguments more compelling. In discussing academic writing style, Hayot contends that “while you may not need to organize your article or book as though it were a murder mystery, the sheer pleasure one-time readers take in fiction’s revelations suggests a parallel for authors of academic work: you need to write for, and think continually of, a reader whose basic temporal experience of the work will be radically different from your own, and for whose pleasure you are essentially responsible.”[8] Being responsible for another reader’s pleasure is risky and carries with it an important burden. Writing in ways that are elegant and engaging is not a bonus or afterthought of style, but I also would not want this to be one more burden on top of the already arduous task of writing. “Don’t get it right, get it written” is a maxim that has helped many of us finish projects and jump academic hurdles. But seeking joy in scholarship can defy the many other external pressures that convert our research into commodities in the academic market. Sometimes we cook just because we need calories, but there are also ways to relish the slow pleasures of cooking over and against the pressures of speed and consumption, and to share that pleasure with others as companions and co-conspirators.

Our pleasure is political. In explaining George Orwell’s turn to gardening during his final years as he suffered from poor personal health and great concern about the global threats of authoritarian regimes and cold and nuclear war, Rebecca Solnit recites a Buddhist parable that links beauty with death. A tiger chases a woman who stumbles over a cliff in her attempt to escape, grasping onto a small plant as her only stability. The plant is a tender young strawberry shoot bearing a single berry, and the woman faces a dilemma—what to do in this moment of crisis? The point of the story, Solnit writes, “is to savor the berry. It’s a story suggesting that we are always mortal and may die sooner than we think: there are often tigers, there are sometimes strawberries.”[9] At times of crisis, when efficiency, urgency, and productivity seem like the only “realistic” responses, our better path may be resistance through savoring beauty. Generating scholarship that brings ourselves and others pleasure is a way to own the delight that drew us into humanistic research in the first place, and it subtly jabs back at the systems that force us to chart success only through CV lines, citations, and other quantitative metrics of our modern neoliberal university. Pleasure is dangerous because it is for us, not for them—the gatekeepers of job evaluation, funding, and metrical research standards. There are many critical and scholarly works that I read because they are necessary for knowledge and understanding and for staying immersed in the current academic discourse. There are also some scholarly works that bring such delight that I would read them even if I did not have this job. Writing in ways that bring pleasure to myself and others is an aspiration—not something I can always achieve but something that motivates my writing life and is an ingredient I always hope to reach for. 

Failing in the Right Direction

Developing more impactful, “dangerous” scholarship is always a process rather than an endpoint. In the field of peace studies, researchers continually seek better modes of conflict resolution and violence reduction, even though violent conflicts remain a constant part of human relations. Ending war may be the ultimate goal, but if achieving that goal is the only measure of worth, then the entire field may be written off as a total failure. This tension between the extreme difficulty of accomplishing ultimate end goals and the effort to work toward them anyway is vital to all kinds of scholar-activism. The forces of capitalism, imperialism, militarism, patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, ableism, and numerous others, all compounded by the ravages of our climate crisis, can seem indomitable, re-emerging in new forms even when we are victorious over them. Instead of marking the value of our work based on whether it fully achieves political goals, we might embrace the riskier position that accepts continual struggle that may look like failure—but failing in the right direction.[10]

Modernist studies is a field particularly attuned to crisis. The age that we study was plagued by war, empire, ecological ruin, unjust economics, and ideological threats that have transformed and grown more malignant in our present century. All of these challenges are mirrored by the current dysfunctional state of the university, an institution fighting for cultural legitimacy while our humanistic fields face decline and precarity. These problems are serious, and failing to meet them can have severe consequences—economic, personal, bodily. But there is also an opportunity for drawing on the resources of modernist studies and its attention to crisis. Failing in the right direction during an age of crisis is the special purview of modernist scholarship, work that can mobilize and advocate while inspiring contemplative practices and pleasurable thought.

These are a few ingredients, shared together for a scholarly recipe seasoned with danger.



[1] Less pertinent to my main point here: why does an academic publisher speak of “users” rather than “readers”? That remains even more mysterious than their fears about recipes. . . .

[2] Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly, Anti-Racist Scholar-Activism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021), 3.

[3] Woolf would also later insist in her diary from May of 1940 that “thinking is my fighting,” a turn toward writing as a resource that defines her final years. Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Five: 193641, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie (New York: Harcourt, 1984), 285.

[4] Michaela Bronstein, Out of Context: The Uses of Modernist Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2.

[5] See, for example, John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[6] Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), ix.

[7] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2020), 89.

[8] Eric Hayot, The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 52.

[9] Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (New York: Penguin, 2021), 25.

[10] Jack Halberstam offers an inspiring supplement to this discussion by arguing that there is great possibility to be found by embracing failure and finding ways to flourish outside our given narratives of success. See The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).