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Fielding Questions

Monument to Estridentismo
Estridentismo Monument, Mexico City

The study of literary modernism has expanded so dramatically over the past few decades that I’ve heard more than one colleague ask in exasperation, “Well, then, what isn’t modernism?”

As Stephen Colbert might ask: is this a great problem to have . . . or the greatest? Almost certainly the latter, but even so, such dynamism and growth bring challenges: so much to read, compelling us to choose from among the now-dizzying array of possibilities, according to criteria that are themselves subject to change. Is this topic so remote from anything I know (metrical innovations in Korean poetry?) that I won’t know what to make of it? Is it being marketed as so close to what I do know (another city novel?) that it fires up all my suspicions about “world literature”? How do I know if the translation is any good? Would I dare to teach this? Even if the average life is getting a tad less brief, art just keeps getting longer.

The Field Reports blog is here to help – or, just possibly, to make things worse. Each report will offer a lively introduction to a field of modernist studies clamoring for a broader audience but that many of our readers probably don’t yet know or might merely know of. Each report will be written by a different contributor and should be characterized by timeliness and accessible, exciting writing, in addition to informational value and scholarly quality. Maxing out at around 1,500 words, the posts will be snapshots of or brief introductions to their respective fields, including suggestions for further reading, media elements, notices of upcoming conferences, and other links to the world beyond the report itself.

“Field Reports” will emphasize languages, nations, and regions outside those that have so far been well represented in the journal. If you have long thought that Modernism/modernity’s readers should know more about Greek surrealism, estridentismo, or the Bengali or Harlem Renaissances, this is a place to start. The point of departure for a report might be a newly discovered or newly accessible archive, a recent cluster of groundbreaking articles, an exhibition visited, or a major work from a “minor” literature suddenly in the news, translated, or celebrating an anniversary.

But of course “fields” are defined by more than language, geography, or the names of movements. Any sustained reflection on these rubrics opens up questions about theory and method, periodization, genre, medium, and translation. Just as “modernism,” “American literature,” or “French” should raise as many questions as they answer, so too “Turkish modernism,” “African literature,” or “Chinese” must be allowed to be problems. The goal, then, is not to add an exotic cuisine to the modernist “food court,” but to invite and provoke sustained conversations and commitments. In addition to being an ethical imperative and a matter of simple accuracy, this should also be much more interesting.

To take an example from my own experience: the frustrations, rewards, and frustrations, but also the frustrations, of trying, mid-career, to get some real training in the field of Japanese modernism. Thanks to the fantastically generous support of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, this undertaking was made about as easy for me as it could be made for anyone with substantial administrative and familial responsibilities and who rarely gets carded anymore. The faculty with whom I worked could not have been any more generous or patient. And yet it was difficult, sometimes very difficult. So I understand very well the reasons for not continuing to expand one’s training, for not taking on that new language, for wanting, at long last, to stop being tested (after so much school and an often cruel job market), to bask in the glow of being, finally, what one has worked so hard to become rather than trying to become yet another damn thing on top of that. Or, at least, to write that next book quickly. And yet I emerged from the experience more than ever an advocate of continued language study and of the sometimes-uncomfortable forms of lifelong learning that require breadth as well as depth, humility as well as expertise.

Part of what originally drew me to Japanese modernism was its complex mixture of familiarity and difference. Of course I was drawn to the tantalizing literary possibilities of the writing system, the dramatically “other” religious history, and so on, but at least as much I wanted to know about those avid readers of William James, those surrealists and futurists, those Marxists and Heideggerians, and especially all those poets who, even when I first read them in translation, I knew had somehow gotten ahold of, and been gotten hold of by, Baudelaire. However subtle my intentions, this initial approach was implicitly dualistic: Dada and Zen, German expressionism and ink painting, tradition and modernity! It was predictable (and even I myself predicted it, in principle), that my initial questions and motives turned out to be inadequate. As I knew, but didn’t really know, Japanese writers have for a century and a half debated precisely the both/and quality of Japanese modernity, both brilliantly and, in the interest of integrity, also sometimes stupidly. And they have dealt with modernity not only as Japanese writers, but in an effort to think comparatively and even specifically globally. In other words, Japanese modernism was (pardon the expression) always already about the problem of modernism in general, the splendor and misery of comparison, the limits and illuminations of analogy, translation, and strategic essentialisms.

The topic of Japanese modernism thus led me not to another modernism, but to many other modernisms: not just to the multiplicity of Japanese “modernisms” (no small or uncontested thing), nor even just to the contiguous worlds of, for example, Japan’s many colonies, but also toward a much larger conversation about comparative and connected modernisms and modernities. I found I had new things to say to my colleagues working on Latin American and Middle Eastern literatures, for example, but more importantly I think I was able to listen to them better. And that, in turn, continued to make other things more interesting. This spilled over into my teaching, which began to attract different kinds of students, and so on.

The point I want to make here is simply that I think I’m a better reader, thinker, scholar, teacher, and probably colleague because of the New Directions experience –not because of things I learned about Japan specifically or because I imagine I have mastered Japanese (hardly!), but really from the experience of trying. And so I would encourage others to try as well, whether that involves taking on Farsi from scratch, dusting off your high school Spanish, or exploring an uncomfortably unfamiliar corner of the Anglophone world. A bracing encounter with one’s own ignorance and incapacities is healthy.

I understand this might raise concerns about diluting “modernism” as a field practiced primarily in English departments (“if it’s everything, then it’s nothing”) or, conversely, about imposing modernism as a category onto literatures and peoples that might not need or want it. The idea, however, is not to extend the Anglophone sense of “modernism” to encompass the whole world, but to recognize the extent to which Anglo-American modernism —so often treated as modernism tout court— was constituted by chronological and geographic segregations that were very often defense mechanisms against the recognition of simultaneities, similarities, and direct connections that in fact made it what it was. We should be thinking about modernism in more global terms not so that we can reinvent it into something more politically correct or to align it with our present’s obsession with the “global,” but because this is what it was all along. In this sense, it is a question of restoring modernism, of trying, to echo Langston Hughes, to let modernism be modernism again (if for the first time).

Some of the topics on the horizon include: the Comintern and the color line; pig shit in Chinese modernism; Surrealism in Egypt; and religion in the Harlem Renaissance. But surely the best ideas will come from readers. Although I will be scanning the disciplinary horizons for emerging fields and will continue to solicit contributors, above all I want to hear from you: topics you would like to see or, better still, to write about yourselves. How else will we know what modernism was –and isn’t?