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Modernism after Modernism

In the introduction to his superb book Realism after Modernism, Devin Fore describes a “shared modernist aspiration to achieve conditions of perception and consciousness outside of what is customarily arrogated to the human.”[1] He sees this as the tie that binds avant-garde movements across early twentieth-century Europe: from José Ortega y Gasset to Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Cezanne to Velimir Khlebnikov, modernism was a radically diverse enterprise with an eye to the aesthetic transcendence of language, figuration, and the rigidly trained mind. The volte face Fore then identifies in an interwar return to the human figure thus contains “a glaring paradox, for although the human body . . . served as the guarantor of mimetic realism’s validity, the reassertion of the human figure at this historical moment was a deeply conflicted proposal, since the seemingly natural body had by that time already become a vexed construction” (Fore Realism 3–4). Realism can’t go back; it can only move forward, trailing its past complications.

Modernism, too, is now a “vexed construction.” And as a virtual publishing endeavor on what we might loosely call global modernisms (note the plural), Field Reports is outside the intended ambit of Fore’s book. Nonetheless, his central quandary is meaningful to a reformulation of its intentions. For one, Realism after Modernism suggests the futility of trying to somehow purge aesthetic descriptors of past sins: so long as “globality,” in modernist studies and elsewhere, is framed as an endless reaction against Western myopia, it will continue to fall short of its pluralistic aims. At the same time, many of modernism’s founding tenets are widely shared, and often renewed outside the locales of their formative and most “problematic” institutionalization. As Michaela Bronstein writes in her book Out of Context, “many key examples of 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.”[2]

The valences of those politics, along with their aesthetic harbingers, will vary tremendously based on one’s point of departure. Field Reports moving forward will thus continue its founding mission not of “decentering” modernism, but of taking non-Western traditions as self-evident centers of its theorization. This difference is both simple and important. The reigning means of pluralizing a field whose origins are in the West is to talk about the need for its pluralization. Often, this means endlessly deferring projects that take up the charge, with recourse to the propositional “What would it look like?” to imagine x or y more inclusive approaches to the field. The intentions here are good, but such gestures run the risk of enforcing the minoritization of “elsewheres” and “others” that are not, on their own terms, marginal to anything. Difference bleeds into instrumentalism. My own editorial objective for this space, then, is to cut to the chase: Field Reports will showcase work by scholars with deep investments in particular aesthetic modernities beyond Western Europe and the United States, because it is essential to discerning which sorts of modernist commitments might in fact be universal.

In large part, Field Reports has been and will remain a series more aligned with comparative literature than with English. Its founding editor, Christopher Bush, works in French and Japanese, and my own work deals with Russian and African traditions. One way of summarizing the difference in approach is that the Anglophone world—and particularly its imperial centers— is, to a comparatist, but a piece of a much larger puzzle. Sometimes it is central, and sometimes it is not. Accounting for this variability in significance entails a higher burden of proof for any generalizing claim, both about what modernism has been and about what is now most crucial to the term’s advancement. As English departments absorb many lessons and also much labor from its more poorly funded “comp lit” counterparts, it is imperative for it to think harder about its own foregone decentralization. The surest way to do this is by sharing intellectual and institutional space with colleagues whose expertise spans a wide range of starting points.

Contributions to Field Reports are not subject to an organizing schema aside from this, because neither I nor any other editor could possibly claim expertise in all or even most of the traditions that past or future contributors to Field Reports do. This might seem like a cop-out; I see it as a necessary precondition of any global forum worthy of the name. What I do insist on as Field Reports’s unifying investment is the significance of field not only in the sense of academic demarcation, but in the literal sense of place. By this I do not mean spatiality, which can too readily become an abstraction in its own right. Bruce Janz has helpfully clarified this difference in his work on African philosophy, describing “platial philosophy” in opposition to spatial thinking as that which entails “the recognition that meaningful questions must be asked in terms of concepts that have currency in a place and that have been ‘activated,’ that is, that have made a difference to the ecology of the place.”[3] I mean, rather, the default assumption of actual places—filled with real, complicated people and discordant social movements—that is tacitly assumed to undergird work on T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound but often denied the operationalized “localities”—or formerly, “peripheries”—drafted as agents of modernist reform. It would be useful here to have just the briefest example of how this elision takes place.

Kente Cloth, probably Ewe, Ghana, c. 1986. Cotton and rayon, plain and supplementary weft-weave.
Fig. 1. Kente Cloth, probably Ewe, Ghana, c. 1986. Cotton and rayon, plain and supplementary weft-weave. Honolulu Academy of Arts. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

The Ghanaian writer Kofi Awoonor, a modernist by any definition, once wrote in The Dalhousie Review about his aesthetic strategies for transforming fragmentation into unity. On its surface, his description is familiar in its transcendent fervor: “Everything is irreducible because everything counts. The [artistic] process therefore also encloses a self-generating ecstasy, moments of delirious madness, the breaking of the formalities of the perceived reality.”[4] This means that merely gesturing to work such as his as a minoritized elsewhere is insufficient; Awoonor is after the same grandiose, metaphysical reunification of broken-apart worldly forms that Fore invokes in Realism after Modernism. At the same time, casting it as something whose significance any modernist can wield also misses the mark. In discussing the reception of what he calls his “prose poem,” the classic Ghanaian text This Earth, My Brother (1971), Awoonor bemoans reviewers’ ignorance of the fact that he has “used, taken, and utilized motifs from Ewe cosmology [and] ontology: motifs that are existing, extant, active” (“Tradition” 669). He furthermore expresses his dismay at being grouped with his compatriot writer Ayi Kwei Armah as a critic of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule. “I wasn’t talking about that,” he testily asserts. “I was concerned with a total ongoing historical process of fragmentation and decay” (669). The upshot is that what Janzen might call the “platial” means by which Awoonor gets from his own, specifically Ewe tradition to the bigger modernist picture are paramount. The scholarly value, in turn, is in the footwork of making these connections, not in simply gesturing to their existence.

Even with specialized knowledge in African literature and Ghanaian writing, I for one would not be up to the task of performing the reading Awoonor seeks. His ideal critic would have knowledge both of modernism’s broad stakes and of Ewe cosmology (not the majority ethnicity within Ghana or its regional setting, and a difficult language to boot). Field Reports is a forum committed to bringing work by that sort of scholar into contact with scholars working similarly in other places and aesthetic traditions, all before a larger audience concerned with modernity’s  rigorous commonalities. It seeks to publish work that is situated but broad-thinking, granular but attuned to conceptual advancement. In sum, Field Reports is a venue where modernist studies meets area studies meets studied recognition of their respective limitations. Over the coming year, we will publish work that centers modernist projects from the Danube region, Ghana, and South Africa, by scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and institutional settings. My hope is that this keeps up a standard for continued geographical and intellectual reach in years to come, seeking an ever-more-finely attuned give-and-take between ambition and expertise.


Notes

[1] Devin Fore, Realism after Modernism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 3.

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

[3] Bruce Janz, “The Geography of African Philosophy” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, ed. Adeshina Afolayan and Toyin Falola (New York: Palgrave, 2017): 155–166, 163.

[4] Kofi Awoonor, “Tradition and Continuity in African Literature,” The Dalhousie Review 53.4 (1974): 665–671, 666.