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Indifferent and Detached: Modernism and the Aesthetic Affect

Fig. 1. Modernist indifference as reprisal of post-Kantian classicism. Detail of Gustav Klimt’s Allegory of Sculpture (1889), showing the Juno Ludovisi in background. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

About halfway through Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the protagonist, Adam Gordon, declares that he has “achieved a new emotional state, or a state in which emotions no longer obtained.”[1] In this state, he reports, “I now felt nothing, my affect a flat spectrum over a defined band.” At the same time, he comes to experience a sort of meta-affect, “a kind of euphoria at my sudden inability to feel” (Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, 103). Immediately, Adam finds, he is a better poet. In this state of indifference, he feels, “for the first time, like a writer, as if all the real living were on the page” (104). He can at last imagine becoming the poet he wanted to be, the poet he thought would most impress the women to whom he was now so indifferent, “a poet who alone was able to array the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it” (104). He buys new notebooks to accommodate his poetic outpouring and feels a sudden invigorating certainty in his aesthetic vocation.

In a novel that ruminates endlessly over its protagonist’s inability to write and his sense of fraudulence as a writer, we might well be surprised to find that Adam’s achievement of his much-longed-for aesthetic certainty, when it (so briefly) comes, results not from commitment but from indifference, not from passion but from detachment. In its repudiation of an aesthetics of intensity, the novel turns away from some of our most familiar commonplaces about the relationship between aesthetics and affect, which tend to understand art in post-Romantic terms, as an expression or outpouring of emotion. Leaving the Atocha Station itself dramatizes Adam’s departure from these norms in the novel’s opening pages, in his encounter with a man who usurps his habitual position as a spectator of Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (fig. 2). As Adam watches in horror, the man bursts into tears; our protagonist wonders, aghast, “was he having a profound experience of art?” (8, emphasis in original). Such an experience, Adam informs us, had long been beyond his ken. Instead, he seeks distance: “Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf” (9). In the encounter between the man having a “profound experience of art,” and Adam’s systematic failure to replicate this experience, the novel founds itself on an affective gap, on the space between a theory of art as an experience of emotional intensity, and a theory of art as its opposite—as distance, detachment, the deadening of emotion.

Fig. 2. Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (1435–1438). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Lerner’s exploration of indifference and detachment is a surprisingly common feature of the contemporary novel. As Jon Baskin has pointed out in a review essay on Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, recent American literature has seen the widespread propagation of what he terms “the novel of detachment,” a genre characterized by its cultivation of indifference.[2] The novelists that Baskin arrays alongside Lerner as advocates of distance include writers such as Rivka Galchen, Teju Cole, Joshua Ferris and Benjamin Kunkel—a roll call, as he points out, of some of the most fêted American novelists to come to prominence in the last decade. They are also, as Baskin does not directly state, some of the key names in a recent move that sees contemporary writing as a resurgent form of modernism.[3] Baskin’s “novels of detachment” have been frequently hailed as “modernist masterpieces,” as Benjamin Lytal (who is one of Baskin’s novelists of detachment) writes of Tao Lin (who isn’t, but easily could be).[4] Lerner himself stands at the centre of this return to modernism, “hearken[ing] back,” as Dan Katz has it, “beyond post-modernism to modernism.”[5] Adam Gordon, setting out into the Madrid streets to relive the American modernist fantasy of louche European expatriation, literally carries with him the collected poems of Lorca and John Ashbery, positioning himself as the heir of both a modernist literary lineage and a modernist way of life.

What are we to make of this intersection of a modernist heritage with postures of detachment in so much contemporary writing? In this essay, I want to suggest that this conjuncture tells us something important about how we understand the category of the aesthetic today. Indifference, I argue, is both the signature by which the aesthetic as such is recognized in contemporary literature, and a crucial tie that binds contemporary writing to our cultural memory of modernism. What Adam’s sense of aestheticized indifference and indifferent aesthetic production points to is the long-standing imbrication of these two concepts, as well as their resurgence on a terrain that recasts indifference as itself an “emotional state,” a way of feeling and relating to the world. I argue that understanding how indifference emerges as an—even the—aesthetic affect is key to understanding how contemporary literature and contemporary literary criticism remembers and reanimates modernism.

A Genealogy of Modernist Indifference

That we think of literature that cultivates indifference as modernist is in large part a legacy of how we have come to think about modernism itself. Modernism has long been associated with aesthetic and aestheticized indifference. In one of its earliest critical accounts, Edmund Wilson identifies two strands: one, “a literature indifferent to action and unconcerned with the group,” that, like the protagonist of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 1890 novel Axel, shuts itself up in a castle away from the world; the other, like Arthur Rimbaud, that abandons Europe for the primitivist frenzy of the East.[6] While modernism has always moved between these two traditions of aesthetic indifference and aesthetic ecstasy, Wilson in 1931 had already prefigured which would become most central to our memory of modernism when he titled his study Axel’s Castle. As Julie Taylor observes, modernist scholarship after Wilson has retained this focus, “tend[ing] to emphasise modernists’ aesthetic preferences for irony and detachment over embodied sentiment.”[7] In doing so, we rely on an influential but selective reading of modernism’s own critical position-taking, following those highly canonized examples that insistently promote an aesthetics of indifference and detachment. We follow modernism from T. E. Hulme’s advocacy of a classical “dry hardness” in poetry, as against Romanticism’s overly emotive “moaning and whining,” to T. S. Eliot’s claim that “Poetry is not the turning loose of emotions, but an escape from emotion.”[8] We privilege its novelization in such canonical texts as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which the young Stephen’s aesthetic development is mapped onto his growing detachment from the Ireland of his youth. We watch as it flows through into the visual arts, where late modernism, from Marcel Duchamp to minimalism, embraces what Susan Best has called the “anaesthetic sensibility in modern art.”[9] We observe Duchamp reflecting on the practice of selecting readymades, as he claims that his “choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste . . . in fact a complete anaesthesia.”[10] Much of canonical high modernism’s own self-theorization, in short, understood its project as the production of indifference, positing it as central to its definition of the aesthetic. Contemporary scholarship, working in and through these touchstone texts, continues this tradition and prioritizes it over a counter-tradition that would prefer Gauguin to Duchamp, D. H. Lawrence to James Joyce, and Arthur Rimbaud to T. S. Eliot. In so doing, we assume the priority of indifference for aesthetics, and equate modernism with this aesthetic indifference.

The path that runs from modernist indifference to the novel of detachment entails an elaboration—and in key respects a productive misreading—of Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetics. It takes its cue from Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790), which famously grounds aesthetic experience in the viewer’s disinterest towards the aesthetic object. Kantian disinterestedness describes a state uncontaminated by the viewer’s interest in the aesthetic object’s capacity to delight or to morally edify, and requires, Kant asserts, “complete indifference” in respect of “the existence of the thing.”[11] This state of disinterestedness, and its association with an attitude of indifference, provides the philosophical foundation on which the notion of aesthetic autonomy is built, initiating a powerful tradition that understands the aesthetic as a realm unto itself, separate from the debasements of commerce and politics. In this guise (and in others), Kantian disinterestedness has provided the foundation on which modern aesthetics has been built, and has been particularly important for the way we have understood and theorized modernism, whose association with aesthetic autonomy—although frequently (and rightly) contested in current scholarship—remains a commonplace. The historical lineage that makes disinterestedness the sign of the aesthetic therefore also identifies it closely with modernism, and prefigures the role that affective detachment will play in this modernist movement.

Nonetheless, Kantian disinterest is not modernist indifference. Writing in Kant’s immediate wake, Friedrich Schiller plays an important role in the transformation of aesthetic disinterestedness into aesthetic indifference, generalizing the Kantian disinterest towards a specific object into a mood and a mode of life. For Schiller, the essence of the aesthetic is play, a state that he thinks is exemplified by the way the Greeks imagined divinity. The Greek gods, Schiller argues, embody the aesthetic, their entire life characterized by “idleness and indifferency” and the banishment of “all the earnestness and effort which furrow the cheeks of mortals, no less than the empty pleasures which preserve the smoothness of a vacuous face.”[12] Removing both “earnestness and effort” as well as “empty pleasures,” Schiller echoes Kant’s espousal of the disinterestedness of aesthetic experience, and, like Kant, understands this disinterest to issue in indifference. But unlike Kant’s aesthetic—and in line with the utopian political project of Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education—Schiller describes not just a passing experience but a whole sphere of existence governed by this conjunction of disinterest and indifference. Aesthetics in this sense becomes a mode of life as well as an experience within a life. In the process, Kant’s emphasis on “indifference to the object’s existence” is transformed, as indifference is generalized to an attitude without any apparent object.

The shift from Kant to Schiller—from disinterest as an attitude towards a specific object (a flower or a painting or a poem), to indifference as a way of being in the world—foregrounds affect as a problem for aesthetics. Schiller’s reading of the Greek gods, more explicitly than Kant’s account of aesthetic appreciation, underscores indifference’s unlikely affective intensity.[13] Reflecting on the Juno Ludovisi’s (fig. 3) capacity to simultaneously inspire “ecstasy” at her “heavenly grace” and “terror” at her “celestial self-sufficiency,” Schiller foregrounds the affective ambivalence of this state of aesthetic contemplation: “Irresistibly moved and drawn by those former qualities, kept at a distance by these latter, we find ourselves at one and the same time in a state of utter repose and supreme agitation, and there results that wondrous stirring of the heart for which mind has no concept nor speech any name” (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 109). This nameless feeling identifies a specifically aesthetic affect, in which art becomes not merely a vehicle of affect, but its spur and occasion. This aesthetic affect is generated through the doubling of indifference with euphoria, of detachment with investment. Its peculiarity, its difference from less “aesthetic” feelings, lies in the way it lodges indifference, affect’s apparent opposite, at its core.

The Schillerian development of Kantian aesthetics offers a way of understanding indifference and affect not as mutually opposed, but as intimately connected—and of understanding the aesthetic to reside in precisely the intimacy of their relationship. In this light, we might want to re-evaluate modernist indifference too, understanding it less as a repudiation of all emotion than as an attempt to cultivate a specifically aesthetic affective state, one whose aestheticism is signalled precisely by its ability to make an affect out of indifference. Rather than seeing modernist indifference as bloodless, we can reread it along the lines of Andrew Goldstone’s recent re-evaluation of modernist autonomy, where he argues that autonomy, far from being the simple repudiation of society, is embedded in particular social contexts—an orientation towards the world and not simply a retreat from it.[14] Indifference, too, might be understood as something lived, embodied, and embedded—less a retreat from emotion than an attempt to fashion a new emotion, particular to art.

In fact, modernists frequently understood indifference in precisely these terms. Eliot’s assertion that “Poetry is not the turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,” for instance, takes on a different cast when read in the light of his call in the previous paragraph for a “a new art emotion” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 20, 21). In this context, what is often casually understood as Eliot’s repudiation of emotion in poetry emerges instead as its transfiguration, the quest for a specifically aesthetic way of feeling that has its roots in a state of affective indifference, of transfiguration of emotion into indifference. Similarly, Clive Bell’s account of “significant form” in the visual arts—a post-Kantian notion that stands at the centre of Bloomsbury aesthetics—finds its value in its production of what Bell calls “the aesthetic emotion.”[15] Echoing both Schiller and Lerner, Bell sees this aesthetic emotion as “a state of extraordinary exultation and complete detachment from the concerns of life”—the doubling, that is, of euphoria with a generalized indifference (Art, 68). Many modernist novels and memoirs dramatize this aesthetic emotion by placing it at the centre of “aesthetic” modes of life that are built around permanent attitudes of indifference and detachment. Modernist memoirs and fictionalized autobiographies, from Joyce’s Portrait to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), frequently present the writer’s life as one of expatriation and detachment, a passionately aesthetic way of living that subordinates conventional emotional ties to an all-consuming commitment to Art.

Fig. 3. The Juno Ludovisi (also known as the Hera Ludovisi). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The contemporary novel of detachment emerges from this strand of the modernist tradition, seeking to embody and embed modernism’s “new art emotion.” Again, Leaving the Atocha Station exemplifies this contemporary turn. For Lerner, as we have seen, indifference is profoundly affective, simultaneously “a new emotional state” and “a state in which emotions no longer obtained” (Leaving the Atocha Station, 39). Like the modernists for whom detachment was the constituent part of the aesthetic emotion, Adam places this state of affectively charged indifference at the centre of his experience of both aesthetic production and aesthetic appreciation. As he understands it, presenting himself as an artist, staking his claim to the aesthetic, is in large part a matter of dramatizing indifference—of performing the aesthetic affect. His “deadpan and monotonic” delivery at poetry readings, for instance, aims to bestow the aura of Art on his poetry by holding in suspense the alternative possibilities that he was either “so convinced of the poem’s power that it needed no assistance from dramatic vocalization” or that, in contrast, “it wasn’t poetry at all, just an announcement of some sort: this train is delayed due to trackwork, etc.” (39). Striving for the impression that his poetry could be simultaneously the kind of thing that engendered a “profound experience of art” and the kind of thing that wasn’t art at all, Lerner—like Bell and Schiller—imagines the aesthetic as existing in the simultaneity of indifference and aesthetic intensity, the detachment of his delivery leaving open the space in which this aesthetic emotion might emerge.

This indifferent attitude conditions not just Adam’s relationship to properly aesthetic experiences, but his orientation towards his life more generally. As an American on exchange in Spain, Adam treats this period of his life as an interregnum, an unreal interval somehow outside his real life. His detachment from his surroundings is heightened by his mediocre grasp of Spanish, which allows him to “dwell among possible referents” but hinders his ability to sustain emotional or intellectual connections, and by his drug-taking, which, contra the Romantic tradition from Coleridge to Hunter S. Thompson, allows Adam not to create new experiences or intensify his existing ones, but instead “to intensify the vantage from said remove” (14, 67). In this state, even the most intense experiences fail to register as immediately emotional or affecting. Sex with his lover Isobel is an exercise in detached self-reflexivity, in which “Her experience of my body . . . was more her experience of her experience of her body . . . and my experience of my body was her experience once removed” (47). When he finds himself caught up in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, he rushes away from the scene in order to experience it instead at a remove, “the newspaper accounts modifying or replacing my memory of what I’d seen” (119). Adam, in other words, experiences life in Spain in the same way he experiences art—as a state whose affective intensity is premised on his indifference. Continuing the recognizably modernist tradition of the recalcitrant, socially detached anti-hero, Adam turns the aesthetic emotion into a way of life.

The novel presents Adam’s adventures in indifference with its own note of ironic detachment. Adam’s first-person narration is, like his poetry readings, “deadpan and monotonic.” It’s difficult to know how seriously the novel (or Lerner) expects us to take its protagonist’s self-involved narrative, or, at times, how seriously he takes it himself. By holding Adam’s life choices and his theory of art at arm’s length, the novel replicates his own stance of detachment and critical distance, turning its ironic gaze back on its anti-hero. The novel’s ironic detachment from its protagonist’s ironic detachment transforms Leaving the Atocha Station into a commentary on the modernist tradition that Adam seeks to join. Rather than straightforwardly celebrating the posture of the indifferent aesthete, it interrogates this now-familiar pose of artistic seriousness. In so doing, Lerner not only perpetuates the long-standing equation of detachment with art, he also introduces a new note: in the return of modernist indifference, modernist aestheticization is now linked to critical self-scrutiny. Art and critique find themselves bound together in their habits of indifference, their shared embrace of the aesthetic emotion.

Modernist Indifference and the Affect of Criticism

In this sense, Lerner brings the contemporary novel of detachment into contact with the habits of literary criticism, that other great heir of the tradition of modernist aesthetic indifference. As Rita Felski has recently argued, a “general attitude of detachment” also pervades contemporary literary criticism.[16] Her account of current critical reading practice emphasizes that its detachment is itself a kind of affect, a “curiously nonemotional emotion” that reveals the extent to which “critical detachment is not an absence of mood, but one manifestation of it” (Felski, The Limits of Critique, 47, 21). Felski’s account of the current mood of academic literary criticism therefore suggests that it has a kind of affective synchronicity with much recent fiction, as authors and critics alike revalue indifference and detachment as surprisingly emotionally charged states.

The history of this critical detachment, like the history of contemporary indifference, reserves a central place for modernism. Felski points to a number of precursors for this attitude, from modernism itself, through Kantian disinterest, aesthetic autonomy, the nineteenth-century dandy, and Russian formalism’s notion of ostranenie. This constellation of indifferent aesthetes makes modernism both a central precursor in its own right and a key mediator between the versions of the feeling found in pre-modernist aesthetics and contemporary criticism. If contemporary scholarship has tended to remember modernism through its detachment and indifference, it has also absorbed these strangely unemotional emotions, via modernism, as the affect appropriate to literary inquiry. While the story of modernism’s importance for twentieth-century literary criticism is a familiar one, the version of the story that Felski hints at is less frequently told. This version suggests, not just that modernism’s epistemological, aesthetic, and linguistic preoccupations remain with us, but also that modernism’s signature affect has been transvalued as the affect of literary scholarship itself.

Critical detachment is perhaps more commonly understood as a posture of professionalism than a mode of aesthetic appreciation (not least because aesthetics itself has been out of fashion in literary studies until quite recently). In truth, of course, it is both. In fact, indifference—as the attitude common to both scholarship and art—plays a crucial role in reconciling the purported objectivity of scholarship with the subjectivity of aesthetic response, legitimizing the odd field of literary scholarship through its affectation of a critical-aesthetic distance. Moreover, in the context of mass higher education and the institutionalization of modernist-derived reading practices like close reading, generations of students have now been taught that adopting an attitude of scholarly indifference is simply how one appreciates art and literature. As a result, the scholarly appropriation of modernist indifference has quietly become the one of the most public faces of professional aesthetic appreciation, supplementing (but certainly not replacing) more popular notions that art should be “relatable,” moving, or otherwise more conventionally emotional. Much of literature’s more formally educated readership, that is, has been taught that indifference is, paradigmatically, the affect one adopts in appreciating art.

In this context, modernism itself was institutionalized as doubly indifferent—both a cold, hard literary moment and one that was seen and understood through the cold, hard eyes of scholarship. If Lerner’s indifference borrows, on the one hand, from a version of modernism that is itself an institutional artefact, it also borrows from the critical habits of thought that this modernism has helped to create. Indeed, the peculiar emotional tenor of Leaving the Atocha Station derives in part from the literary-critical tone Adam adopts towards his experiences, analyzing them as though they were a particularly striking line of poetry. His reflections on Ashbery are in fact drawn from one of Lerner’s own critical essays on the poet, which appeared in boundary 2 the year before the novel’s publication. The seamlessness with which Lerner’s criticism is transferred to Adam’s thoughts speaks to the fluidity of the line between author and narrator but also—more interestingly—to the porousness of the distinction between criticism and literature in a novel in which critical detachment has become a character trait and a form of aesthetic sensibility.

The indifferent affect of the novel of detachment can therefore be understood not just as a legacy of modernism but, more specifically, a legacy of the ways in which modernism has been absorbed into the academy. In this sense, the aestheticized indifference of contemporary writing is better understood not as modernist but as metamodernist (to borrow David James and Urmila Seshagiri’s helpful term), in that its modernism is a retrospective one, filtered through the legacy of modernism’s reception in the university.[17] By highlighting the affective quality of modernist indifference, metamodernists like Lerner dramatize the extent to which the contemporary critical vogue for modernism is linked to modernism’s on-going significance for our conceptualization of aesthetics, and to scholarship’s own conflicted relationship to affect. They suggest that both scholarship and contemporary literature remember modernism as an affect: the aesthetic affect of indifference.


[1] Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2011), 103.

[2] Jon Baskin, “Always Already Alienated,” The Nation, February 11, 2015.

[3] For accounts that describe these various novelists as modernist, see James Wood, “She’s Not Herself,” New Yorker, June 23, 2008; Giles Foden, “Open City by Teju Cole—Review,” The Guardian, August 17, 2011; Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges, “Introduction: The Contemporaneity of Modernism,”  in The Contemporaneity of Modernism, ed. Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1–14, 12n1.

[4] Benjamin Lytal, “Gchat Is a Noble Pursuit: Tao Lin’s Modernist Masterpiece,” Observer, June 5, 2013.

[5] Daniel Katz, “‘I Did Not Walk Here All the Way from Prose’: Ben Lerner’s Virtual Poetics,” Textual Practice 31, no. 2 (2017): 315–37, 319.

[6] Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 18701930 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), 286–87.

[7] Julie Taylor, “Introduction: Modernism and Affect,” in Modernism and Affect, ed. Julie Taylor (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 1–19, 2.

[8] T. E. Hulme, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Herbert Read (London: Routledge, 1960), 126; T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 13-22, 21.

[9] Susan Best, Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-Garde (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 40.

[10] Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 141.

[11] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, ed. Nicholas Walker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 37.

[12] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, In a Series of Letters, ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 109.

[13] See Kant, Critique of Judgement, 57.

[14] See Andrew Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[15] Clive Bell, Art (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1913), 8.

[16] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 47.

[17] David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87–100.