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Modernism Ungoverned

For the first time in 7 years, I am not teaching full-time. I’m on sabbatical. The morning after the election, there was no place I was supposed to be other than working on my book. I didn’t have to face a classroom and try to digest the election with students, nor did I have to convince them that our conversations were politically relevant. I didn’t have to get my kids off to school and move on with everyday life (I don’t have kids). It was like Johnny Rotten staring cross-eyed into the camera, “noooooo future.” It was just me.

Without the institution, my reality was contingent. I was a private citizen.

First, I was in bed. I’ve never been a sleeper. I became a deep, organism-defensively-retreating-from-world type sleeper. Then, the night after the election, I was out in the street, filling 5th Avenue along with thousands of other people. It was invigorating; it gave my body somewhere to be that felt vital. After a few days of that, again I was back at my computer, but none of the vitality of the previous days felt transmitted back to my writing. My computer was still dark: it all seemed completely irrelevant. I could find no reason to write. Who cared about novels that people had written one hundred years ago? What did it matter that I could read them closely? I didn’t have my students there to make my writing feel important or urgent, or even pleasurable. What did my scholarship mean? What did modernism matter?

In answer to these questions, I want to reflect here on how thought is bound to action. I’ll begin by reflecting on a piece I began writing in late October and only completed just before the new year, on the heels of the election. It is an essay on the horrific fact of African American women being called upon to narrate the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of the police. Then I’ll provide what I take to be some maxims that are helping me to write and think again.

When the video footage of the murder of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte police was released in September 2016 by The New York Times, I turned suddenly and deeply to writing. I was immediately thrust up against memories of the Facebook live video in which Lavish Reynolds captured and narrated the dying moments just after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot by police. I wrote 2,000 words in one sitting. I wanted to honor these women who had bravely become narrators to testify to unjust murder. I felt I had something urgent to say. I wrote to my colleague Jennifer Stoever, editor-in-chief of Sounding Out!, and asked if the blog could accommodate the piece. It was after the election that Jennifer got back to me with some revision notes; it had been an intense read and had taken some time to work through. The urgency of contesting black death had also taken on a different tenor after the election. Jennifer urged me to ground my reading—which revolves around the raced and gendered power of narrative—in a long historical trajectory. We began to discuss how these videos are one articulation of a still-continuing narrative, echoing other voices from the past, voices like Ida B. Wells and modernist Zora Neale Hurston. I had begun by thinking I was writing on an unprecedented present; I was now writing within a still-continuing present. This leads me to the first maxim, one that I have been holding close.

Modernism teaches untimeliness and anachrony.

Recently, I went to concert in New York with two friends, also professors, for sustenance. Meg Baird sang an old folk song, and she was suddenly overcome, just before singing, with what was an untimely voice in the long corridor of history arriving here to speak and sing now. I was reminded of the work of Sara Marcus who suggests that the power of song is its “migration of form.” In a brief essay for Artforum, “Untimely Feedback,” Sara was tasked with a similar question to what I’m tasked with now. She writes:

I’ve been listening, closely, to the guttural sounds of physical labor Leadbelly grafts into his performances of work songs after the figure of “the worker” and a commitment to justice for Black people both disappear from his activist audiences’ politics, vanished with that revolutionary horizon. Take this hammer—HAAH! he sings. And carry it to the captain—HAAH! Tell him I’m gone—HAAH! Tell him I’m gone.

Sara then shifts to the 90s punk music of riot grrrl movement that sounded out in the years after Anita Hill, a music, she suggests, that still feeds back and remains open. Disappointment, Sara argues, is a time of artistic and political interstices that is not without form.

When things can’t be articulated directly, when they have no arena or lexicon in a political field, they find hybrid forms that traverse eras and worlds, carrying the historically inutterable like oak branches bearing messy tentacular moss. The song carries the feedback, the hum, the haah, the scream. And these things make the song live on differently.

There is some sustenance to be found in the promise of your own untimely feedback. You cannot guarantee how your words will resound in the future. As writers and thinkers, this same promise enjoins us, like Paul Klee’s angel of history, to let still-unfinished voices make their claim upon our present.

To be a modernist is to be committed to a project of memory and its guises. Modernism teaches re-memory.

The last few months, I have been wrestling in my book on Conrad with its chapters on Freud, Benjamin, and Du Bois. These figures are always in my mind, and their situations continually speak.

Freud was never really able to let go of the liberal dreams of his father and bitterly hated authoritarianism in all of its guises. Carl Schorske reminds us that, in 1895, the elections in Vienna ushered Karl Lueger’s anti-Semites into power, “a stunning blow to the bearers of liberal culture, Jew and Gentile.”[1] Again, the contradictions of modernity seemed to be laid bare: reason and law do not dispel nationalism. We remember Freud for the universality of the subject he claimed to discover; but this subject was of his political moment. A Jew, Freud had difficulty securing a position as a professor. In 1897, he joined B’nai B’rith in what Schorske describes as “comfortable refuge,” the organization posing no threat to his standing while also not furthering his intellectual pursuits. Nonetheless, it was then that Freud’s thought paradoxically became deeply speculative, doing the work—part memoir and recherché—that would become the fulcrum of The Interpretation of Dreams. “The more Freud’s outer life was mired, … the more winged his ideas became,” estranging himself from the men who might advance him (Schorske, 186). It was in the context of political and personal strife that he separated the psyche from “anatomical moorings.”

The morning that the immigration ban was announced, I was writing on Benjamin’s last Paris letters sent not long before he would be awaiting a visa. Benjamin committed suicide at the border of Spain. Later that same day, I read that a Chilean woman at John F. Kennedy Airport had, in the midst of being deported, tried to commit suicide (she survived. and the Port Authority agents were lauded as heroes for reviving her). I’d give anything for Benjamin’s visa to have arrived in time for him to have survived too. To survive, Homi Bhabha suggests, is outside of the time of modern progress. It instead dreams an afterlife that is proper to the work of translation. For “the migrant’s survival depends,” Bhabha continues (citing Salman Rushdie), “on discovering ‘how newness enters the world.”[2]

As the day progressed, I saw a post about an impromptu demonstration taking place in the international arrivals terminal at San Francisco International Airport. At least one refugee was being unlawfully detained. I took a cereal box out of the trash and turned it inside out to create a feeble sign. I shared a cab with a neighbor down the street. At the beginning of the demo, the older protesters took turns telling stories of immigration, using what came to be known through Occupy Wall Street as “the people’s mic.” A first ring of demonstrators closest to the speaker repeats her words, then sends words back to the next ring, and so on in an antiphony. As one man was in the middle of the immigration story of his parents, a rush of younger protesters came in, unfamiliar with the people’s mic, and their shout of “no ban, no wall” drowned out the tales in a sound clash. 

Modernism teaches living with contradiction.

I am struck by news articles whose sole purpose is to enumerate lies, evasions, and misstatements. The fact is that reality does not matter, only the law and who will enforce it and how. The deep contradiction is to decry that law is not being enforced, when the true face of the enforcement of law is extreme brutality. I’m reminded of Benjamin’s notion of the “incommensurable” being brought to its extreme.

I have been reading with fervor Rajanna Khanna’s Dark Continents, on Freud’s entanglements with colonialism. Khanna traces how Freud’s thought paradoxically became central to figures like Frantz Fanon, the very kind of subject Freud had denied recognition in his primitivism. Khanna shows how the principle work of official colonial narratives is to embed themselves in the psyche where they are lived out in melancholic ways. She writes what I take to be a maxim for our thinking: “Clearly, when memory is called upon to claim or disclaim an official past, its resonance as counterfactual narrative becomes extremely important, especially in conditions of the suppression of truth.”[3]  

Reading after Freud is premised upon the symptom: one should search in gestures and tics for the truth, not in conscious motives. In the world of speech and interpretation this introduced a fundamental split.

But the modernists’ challenge was to ask, “who is speaking?” and “how are stories to be told?” Here is where I think there is deep work for literary scholars and modernist scholars in particular. On the one hand, the terrain of political speech has become empty. It is pure tic, without depth to uncover; the alternative fact is pure performative. Hal Foster recently suggested that the difficulty posed by our President’s speech for critics is that it is “shameless,” that is, never embarrassed of itself. On the other hand, I would suggest that the challenge posed by “who is speaking?” is that it enjoins one to probe continually the shifting boundaries of (dis)identification and fantasy that support any act of speech, the reality it both believes in and demands.

Both of these are true at once: political speech is empty; “who is speaking?” is a question that yields a layered, contradictory, and unfinished answer, one that takes on the dimensions of a counterfactual narrative.

Two years ago, circulating in the news were the horrific images of a ship of Muslim refugees that no port would take. They had been at sea for some time, moving from port to port, half-living testimony to the life and death contradictions of borders. I was reminded of how, in Conrad’s Eastern World, Norman Sherry collates the many sources for Conrad’s imaginary in Lord Jim and “Youth,” stories that transform instances of disaster at sea. Lord Jim takes an event of its day, “the scandal of the Eastern seas” (an 1880 incident aboard the Jeddah). There had been no lifeboats for the hundreds of Muslim pilgrims aboard ship. There had been purported fights between the pilgrims and the crew. The crew abandoned ship, leaving the pilgrims on what they thought was a sinking ship. It didn’t sink and would in fact be towed ashore by another ship in the Gulf of Aden. Conrad had become familiar with the ship through the London newspapers and shore-talk. This letter from Captain Clark appeared in newspapers and became evidence in court:

On the night of the 7th there was a great difference in the demeanor of the pilgrims, they armed themselves with knives and clubs. About 400 men were clustered all around my cabin on deck and I was informed it was their deliberate intention to murder my wife. I satisfied myself assuredly on this point from the various conversations of the Hadijis and their demeanor left no doubt in my mind as to their intention.[4]

Given what the courts thought was a rightful fear for his wife, the captain was not prosecuted, although there is not a greater sin amongst seamen than abandoning ship. In the book I am now completing, The Fact of Resonance, I argue that Conrad’s treatment of the scene sheds all of the “factual” details to instead isolate the one thing that is never fully addressed by the news articles: the problem of communication. Conrad re-imagines the scene as between a white crewman and a single Muslim pilgrim begging for water in his own language, a moment of impossible and misrecognized address.

The Captain’s account is no doubt written with the officious sense that it would become a matter of public record and erase any other narrative. The pilgrims are an undifferentiated mass. But Conrad, I suggest, hears an unanswered question. The Captain’s treatment of the narrative does not account for the imputed address. Who informs him, and in what language, of the intention to murder his wife? How was it possible to communicate thus in the midst of such throng? In the news, the scene takes on the status of pure image—it is the image of murderous men, “bad hombres,” clustered all around; the image of knives and clubs, that supersedes all details. It is the vision of an undifferentiated body that “speaks” the intent to kill. Conrad’s tactic is to show the seams of that sensory unity. 

A contest of memory and the powers of inscription defined modernism. Conrad rewrites the scene; he re-remembers it over and against the work of facts. He interrogates the structural situation that leaves characters unable to communicate in ways not already mired in aggression.  The white crewman’s affective bind is that his own aggression is quickly followed by melancholy, guilt and shame, a shame of living in his moment that leaves him, as the novel’s central consciousness, fundamentally fractured. At the same time, as written by Conrad, the scene opens upon a vexed and accusatory echo-chamber, one that leaves this reader unable to decide if she, too, over-identifies with the narrative and has become unable to afford full humanity to its other, succumbing to the narrative’s propulsive desire for the ship to sink.

Modernism was born out of complicated answers to the question “who is speaking”? The account in the newspaper rests upon a schematic racism, where the bodies are already visible within an epistemic field.  But “who is speaking?” opens polyphonic and irrational terrain. The answer after Freud is that many people are speaking within a single utterance.

Modernism is a study without object.

Photographer: Lorie Shaull. Resist sign, Thursday evening rally against Trump's "Muslim Ban" policies sponsored by Freedom Muslim American Women's Policy.

Scholarship in these times is a renewed disclaimer. There should be no distinction between works of writing that take as their object the present and those that take as their object the past.

“We must become ungovernable,” as a protest flag at the San Francisco Airport sit-in said. A group of protesters blocked the escalator, and yet, protest is a privilege that can be brutally foreclosed at any time. People were allowed to sit in at certain cities without intervention. But mayors can call in a dangerous (and in many cases, militarized) police to provoke, brutalize, and falsely arrest people.

For the academic and scholar, to become ungovernable means something in addition to direct action. It means that if Scott Walker in Wisconsin examines your syllabi (which a representative is calling for after reading in the curriculum a course called “The Problem with Whiteness”) it must become impossible to differentiate syllabi that are driven by social justice and anti-racism and those that concern quarantined objects of the past. When confronted in all of its contradictions, untimely feedback is the only real ground of anti-racism; the untimely is a shifting ground. One must be willing to give way to what is not known or readily systematized.  In this way, all syllabi, all writing, should be constellations, as Benjamin might say, allowing the present, past, and future to make contact. To be a modernist is not to give up on what in the past is still incomplete or in the making.

Modernist studies is, properly speaking, a study without object. Be wary of fixed, fast, and frozen objects. They are lived and ongoing conditions, questions, and modes of relation in disguise. What in your present thought is not fully cognized by you? How can you write into that rift?

Each day I pour over the counter-record reported in the newspapers; news has been reduced to restatements of false statements. If it is the case that modernist modes of reading take their cue from the unconscious, then what kind of unconscious, if no longer the life of the tic that speaks a positive truth? Dan Blanton writes:

Freud’s final version of the unconscious is defined ultimately by the fact that it properly includes nothing at all, that in some very simple sense nothing is ever there to begin with, neither symbol nor image nor meaning. … What is “blasted into consciousness” with modernity in its most extreme phase—with H.D.’s war and with modernism’s last conceptual turn against itself—is merely that fact, the pressure of a shared situation that refuses to heed the boundaries of the individuated subject or the demands of a representational aesthetic.[5]

Blanton names this blasting an “epic negation.” #Resist is the word that has seized social media, and on the beach at San Francisco, where I now write, a group of bodies got together to form the word R-E-S-I-S-T on the shore, visible from the sky. Like the sky-writing in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the letter formation was impermanent; just a line in the sand. Epic negation is an affect as much as it is an activity, and it confronts the groundlessness of thought, the nihil of the unconscious. The modernists teach that there is no foundation, there is only historical determination that exceeds the demands of positive representation.

Some have been able to escape thoughts of the pressure of a shared situation until very recently. Others have been there for a long time. Benjamin’s central thesis regarding history is that it has to happen again to be recognized. To my mind, “modernism” is a poor locution. Not because of any “we have never been modern” argument, but because it claims to answer a question that has not been answered. Moreover, as a noun, it stands in for the force of a question. It resolves in advance an object that is still unfolding with as-yet undetermined afterlives.

In writing and thinking, negation happens through the painful recognition of a shared situation.  Negation, rather than calling one to seek positivity in the next formula or object, calls one to write from that restless pressure of contractions that define the shared situation.


[1] Carl E. Schorske, Fin-D-Siècle Vienna Politics and Culture, 1961, New York: Vintage, 1981. 185.

[2] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, New York: Routledge, 1994, 226-27.

[3] Rajanna Khanna, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 13.

[4] Norman Sherry, Conrad’s Eastern World, London: Cambridge University Press, 1966, 52.

[5] C.D. Blanton, Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 328.