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Modern Insecurities, or, Living on the Edge

A feeling of insecurity has infiltrated daily life in the United States. This general unease clouds the perception of many, preventing them from—or, allowing them to avoid—interrogating the reality of their situation. Important to remember always, but especially today, is that some people have permanent access to safety, while many live perpetually adjacent to or outside of it. As a result, they lack the support that would enable them to act confidently, without fear. For good reason, insecurity has a predominantly negative connotation, yet this feeling also holds positive potential for those who exist in positions of safety. Rather than closing themselves off, restricting interactions with other people and ideas, they can respond by seeking out new experiences and affiliations from which they can reflect back on the zone of safety. From this vantage point, safety’s limitations become easier to recognize and change more accessible. 

This essay confronts the feeling of insecurity that lurks behind expansions of modernism as a field and concept with the rise of the new modernist studies. The new modernist studies expanded previously limited horizons by productively highlighting the contributions of artists and texts that had gone without recognition; however, it threatens 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.[1] This expansion is driven—at least, in part—by more pervasive precarity in literary studies as a profession, and its consequences reveal the need to drive change within familiar ways of thinking and educating our students.

Expanding Modernisms

Debate has raged around the definition of “modernism” and its worth as a critical concept since its emergence. Despite continued attempts to define the term, scholars of modernism have not arrived at a consensus about its meaning or the texts that fall under its auspices. In fact, many have responded by embracing the flexibility of the term and stretching its limits, as Susan Stanford Friedman does in Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity across Time (2015). Like Friedman, they look in unconventional times and places for the “instances of transformational rupture and rapid change” that characterize modernity.[2] Such “expansions” in “temporal, spatial, and vertical directions”[3] fall under the rubric developed by Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, and the new modernist studies has flourished by embracing incoherence and expansion. David James and Urmila Seshagiri “counted no fewer than forty geographically distinct subcategories of modernism” while researching their 2014 PMLA article, and the field has grown since.[4] This movement has opened new avenues for discussion; however, as scholars of modernism and students of history, we must ask, “When does expansion become colonialism?”

It is easy to dismiss concerns about the dilution of modernism as they can easily re-inscribe the same hierarchy against which we have been rebelling. By accepting continued expansion, we refuse to reckon with the broader consequences of continued dilution. At this moment, we need to pause and interrogate the local context within which modernist studies is operating. Who is defining modernism, and for what purposes?

Neoliberal imperatives toward unity are still active within the industry that is modernist studies, despite the continued drive to embrace multiplicity. This industry benefits from there being some definition to modernism; this is how it consolidates an audience and thus sustains itself. Yet it earns more from controversy around the term and expansion of it. In consequence, more books and articles are published, more conferences organized, and more scholars trained. The concept constitutes and is constituted by the people and texts that participate in the industry; the more participate, the more activity takes place off which certain parties can profit.

Fig. 1. Ian Hacking at the 32nd International Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria, August 2009. Photo by Ludvig Hertzberg; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ian Hacking calls this the “looping effect”: both the category (modernism) and the categorized (modernist texts, authors) are “moving targets because our investigations interact with the targets themselves and change them.”[5] The process of classification itself requires categories to evolve, to change the people and texts they classify, and to be, in turn, changed by that which they classify. Friedman acknowledges this same process in “Definitional Excursions” (2001), pointing out that “[d]efinitions mean to fence in, to fix, and to stabilize. But they often end up being fluid, in a destabilized state of ongoing formation, deformation, and reformation that serves the changing needs of the moment” (497). In “the moment” that Friedman recognizes, time and space overlap in a predictable but important way.

Global Modernisms

In this particular time and space, we are caught up in a trend that has grown out of the new modernist studies: global modernisms. Literary critics employing this approach integrate multiple national, linguistic, and/or cultural contexts in their research. (This group includes Friedman, despite her aversion to such an affiliation.) They actively identify areas of convergence among texts, aesthetics, or social concerns conventionally associated with modernism and those that have grown in other times and places. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough’s The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (2012) captures and consolidates a number of such examples; however, Wollaeger explicitly asks in his introduction whether it is “productive” to bring such disparate paradigms under the rubric of modernism.[6]

To answer this question, it is necessary to examine what this practice produces: Wollaeger and Eatough’s volume—and global modernisms, more generally—makes a space in which critical inquiry that formerly occurred under the auspices of comparative literature can thrive. This relationship is made obvious in the frequent appearance of the word “comparative” in texts like this one, and a significant but ambiguous convergence exists between this approach and another, called “comparative modernisms.”

Methodologically, these approaches are oriented toward the future that scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak envisioned for comparative literature: one unlimited by national boundaries. In Death of a Discipline (2003), she characterizes the origin of comparative literature as “the result of European intellectuals fleeing ‘totalitarian’ regimes.”[7] In such cases, literary study provided a zone of safety, and bridging transitional institutional boundaries became a form of resistance aimed at protecting threatened voices and knowledges.

Since that moment, comparative literature departments have lost ground and funding; yet, the rise of global modernisms reveals a growing need to renegotiate the purpose and boundaries of English departments across the country. As Wollaeger clarifies, “the majority of contributors [to The Oxford Handbook] work in departments of English” (4).[8] Many such scholars are now developing projects and teaching classes that seem to contradict the traditional mission of an English department: reading and teaching Anglophone literature.[9] Not all global modernist projects compare texts across languages, but many do. Since a hallmark of comparative literature was formerly “the skill of reading closely in the original,” how are we to support students who can succeed in global modernisms within English departments (Spivak, Death of a Discipline, 6)?

Many modernists produced by these departments are unprepared for the current market. They have been trained primarily in English using Anglophone texts. Programs like that at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have language requirements so minimal that some graduate students never even take a language class while enrolled. In such situations, students who venture into other national and cultural contexts to develop a true global dissertation project must leverage pre-existing knowledge or chart their own course within a limited graduate curriculum. It is up to them to find resources that they may not yet know they need.

Fig. 2. Siegfried Sassoon wearing military uniform with the collar badges of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and hat, May 1915. Photo by George Charles Beresford; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars in other fields are also facing heightened pressure from globalization and cultural de-valuation of education in the humanities, with graduate students forced to go to ever-greater lengths to prove themselves within constricting budgets and timeframes.[10] These forces undergird the movement toward global modernisms, even as we may argue that the drive for expansion comes from within modernism itself. And these forces continue to gain strength: three of the top tenure-track jobs in modernism for the 2016–2017 job market advertised for scholars specializing in global modernisms, and the trend toward new modernist literary approaches still dominates the job list.[11] Scholars continue to take up this challenge, but they are going to even greater lengths—see, as an example, Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross’s Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology, which contains translated texts from Peru, Madagascar, Zaire, Iraq, and Georgia, among others.[12] Traditional English departments are not structured to support students when we ask them to chart such geographically, linguistically, temporally, and culturally diverse paths; thus, they are often left to fend for themselves, with predictable consequences. If we persist in this ideological direction, then we need to re-envision the support structures available to graduate students of modernism. If not, then we predestine greater numbers of students to an insecure graduate education, where they struggle to understand and then access the resources needed to succeed within today’s new modernist culture.   

Unsafe Modernisms

Modernist scholars know the affective power of insecurity—not just from their daily lives in academia, but also from the texts they study. This feeling is particularly poignant and palpable in literature written by soldiers during the First World War. Siegfried Sassoon highlights it in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918), addressing both its causes and consequences in a series of reflexive poems.[13] When viewed with an eye toward safety, the poem “Sick Leave” serves as the conceptual lynchpin of the collection.

In it, Sassoon’s speaker reflects on the complicated but familiar paradox whereby being wounded could make a soldier safe. The poem begins with the image of a physically comfortable sleeping soldier, “dreaming and lulled and warm,” which contrasts markedly with the scenes of filth, death, and fear that populate the earlier twenty-four poems (Sassoon, Counter-Attack, 43). Soon after, “In bitter safety I awake, unfriended,” he tells us. With this seeming oxymoron and its grammatical relationship with “unfriended,” Sassoon complicates the emotional experience of being safe—lauded by a woman in an earlier poem—with concerns for those who remain in danger. In fact, the feeling of safety appears to cause more pain for the narrator than the literal danger or physical consequences of being at the front. Sassoon reminds us here that personal safety always comes at a cost to someone else.

Continued pursuit of the new modernisms toward global modernism is likely to produce an affective state of bitter safety akin to that which Sassoon presents here. On its face, the move seems positive—extending a field of study to integrate artists and texts from diverse traditions. However, it does not account for the implications for other fields, for the institutional model we now inhabit, and for graduate students developing dissertation projects as part of this model. We are due for a radical reorientation of modernism, and one way to facilitate this paradigm shift may be to acknowledge explicitly and institutionally the importance of crossing national boundaries fluidly—not only in the study of literature, but in life itself. Such a move would acknowledge a priori “the irreducible hybridity of all languages,” a quality on which conventional modernist texts like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) are founded (Spivak, Death of a Discipline, 9). For, in reality, much of what we understand modernism to be is anathema to the traditional mission of an English department.

In earlier poems, Sassoon suggests that the bonds between soldiers are so strong because they feel abandoned by those who are supposed to protect them, advocate for them, care for them.[14] Assuming we are committed to the new modernisms, we need to consider what the benefits are for us, as scholars, teachers, and mentors, in maintaining existing departmental boundaries versus redefining them. How truly innovative can we and our students be within this space? What possibilities may open up for modernism, literary studies, and new scholars in these fields generally if we alter our practices and paradigms accordingly?


[1] This argument is specifically made by David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87–100, 90.

[2] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), ix, 4.

[3] Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48, 737.

[4] Friedman does still criticize modernist studies for being “insufficiently planetary” (Planetary Modernisms, 3).

[5] Ian Hacking, “Kinds of People: Moving Targets,” Proceedings of the British Academy 151 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 285–318, 293.

[6] Mark Wollaeger, introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3–22, 3.

[7] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 3.

[8] The same trend is also visible in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, ed. Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[9] This term was the keyword of choice for job searches in modernism from 2014 through 2016; however, it has largely given way to “global.”

[10] For more on this topic, see Séan Richardson, “In Search of Lost Time: Precarious Research in the UK, ” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 3, no. 2 (2018).

[11] Information accessible through the Chronicle for Higher Education or the MLA’s Job Information List.

[12] Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross, ed., Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology (New York: Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

[13] See Siegfried Sassoon, Counter-Attack and Other Poems (London: William Heinemann, 1918).

[14] See Siegfried Sassoon, “The General” and “Does It Matter?” in Counter-Attack and Other Poems, 26, 28.