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Not a Globe but a Planet: Modernism and the Epoch of Modernity

As the critical scale of modernism has shifted away from nation and toward the world system, critical possibilities have been both opened and foreclosed. The essays in this cluster—including Aarthi Vadde’s argument about the definitional scalability of modernism, Nicole Rizzuto’s examination of maritime fiction’s relationship to surface reading, and Bashir Abu-Manneh’s emphasis on global realism—all point to the ongoing critical possibilities that emerge from the successes and failures of the “global” as a paradigm. For me, these debates represent a crucial point of inquiry for scholars at a moment in world history in which global capital flows determine so much of our lives. But there is another aspect to the relationship between modernism and the systems of capitalist modernity that turns on “planetary” rather than “global” concerns.

What is a planet? This question might seem remote from the concerns of literary critics. Yet a strain of recent scholarship in literary studies has used the term “planet” to read literary texts across diverse cultural geographies and historical periods, in turn challenging established ideas of “globalization” and “modernity.” Wai Chee Dimock, for example, has called for a mode of literary study that looks away from older notions of period and nation, one in which the “unit of analysis” is “nothing less than the full length and width of our human history and habitat.”[1] She privileges “planetary time” as an analytical frame for tracing migration of texts across nations, cultures, and historical periods. Susan Stanford Friedman has brought a similar perspective to modernist studies’ own efforts to expand the spatial frame of modernism. In her recent book Planetary Modernisms, she attempts to enlarge “the scale of space and time to argue for a fully planetary approach to modernity.”[2] Planetarity for Friedman is a way of understanding the spatial extension of modernisms beyond “the prevailing ‘Western’ framework” as well as the temporal coding that understands modernity as an exclusively recent phenomenon (Planetary Modernisms, 3). Both projects are logical extensions of the “global” turn, and I find the efforts to expand the temporal and spatial horizons of literary analysis heartening because they open up new critical avenues for reading literature’s relationship to the planet as a system.

Fig. 1: Saturn, as seen from the Cassini space probe. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

But one might reasonably ask whether such projects use the term “planet” in the ordinary sense of the word. Both Dimock and Friedman examine literary texts within scales of time stretching to some thousands of years—roughly 0.0000004% of the age of Earth, or 1% of the age of modern humans—far from the geological timescales of a planet. The reason they prefer such scales is quite simple; literature, like culture itself, is a relatively recent invention, meaning there is a limit to how widely we can expand the temporal frames of analysis before our object of analysis is dwarfed by the epochs and eons of the planet’s much longer history. From a genuinely planetary point of view, modernity itself might appear a fleeting, even evanescent, moment in the geological record—hardly the right kind of object to study within a “planetary” frame of analysis. And yet much recent work within the humanities has attempted to grapple with an emerging consensus regarding the geological significance of industrial modernity. For critics of the Anthropocene, modernity and modern culture are significant at such scales because they mark an unprecedented moment in which human activity became indelible within the geological record of the planet. This fact has prompted some critical reflection about the task of the disciplines in assimilating their object of study to the much larger timescales of the planet. For example, Dipesh Chakrabarty has asked how the field of history might place processes of globalization—cultural, ecological, and political—within a longer history of the planet as a geological entity. Such histories, he avers, are crucial because they may help us better understand the monumental problem that capitalist modernity represents to the endurance of the species and the future of our planet.[3]

Understanding the role of literature within planetary time is an important political task if we are to understand the cultures of the Anthropocene and the predicament that faces us as a species today. But rather than place literature in the context of planetary time, as Friedman and Dimock attempt, I instead want to place planetary time within our literature, specifically within the history of modernism. What interests me is how modernist writers, working at the moment of historical consolidation of capitalism as a world system, understood the stakes of industrial modernity as a planetary process. How did such an understanding coalesce in their thinking? What kind of formal mediations did such thinking take? And most importantly, how might this sort of modernism help us, in the twenty-first century, understand and respond to planetary processes that largely evade our immediate perception?[4]

At the risk of making too bold a claim, I want to suggest that enormous shifts in production, media, and economics offered conditions of possibility for modernists to diagnose the genuinely planetary (as opposed to merely global) consequences of capitalist modernity. For a least some modernist writers, industrial modernity represented an epochal event in the life of the planet, a defining moment in which the extension of human institutions ceased to be merely spatial and became a matter of the longest longue durée. This is a key distinction: while “global” phenomena are those that are spatially or geographically extensive, “planetary” ones have temporal duration on a geological scale. For some modernist writers, the extension of culture, economics, and people across the globe became a temporal problem, a matter of planetarity rather than globality. Early science fiction offers perhaps the best way of registering modernists’ own sense of the epochal event of modernity and allows us to see how they imagined their work within planetary contexts that both acknowledge and superseded the regional and national contexts traditionally at the heart of discussions of “global” modernisms. With the space I have here, I merely want to highlight two novels that mediate modernity as an epochal event in the life of the planet—Star Maker (1937) by British novelist Olaf Stapledon, and War with the Newts [Válka s mloky] (1936) by Czech writer Karel Čapek. Emerging concurrently and from markedly different sites within the world system, these texts offer consonant perspectives on global capitalism as an event of geological significance, and the formal project of each represents an effort to respond to industrial modernity as a planetary condition.

Published in Prague in 1936, War with the Newts imagines nature’s revenge against the extension of capitalism to all corners of the globe. Rather than employing a single protagonist, it is the story of species. The novel begins in the Pacific as Captain J. van Toch, the Czech-born captain of a Dutch vessel, is west of Sumatra looking for new hunting grounds for pearls. Čapek establishes immediately that this global commercial endeavor has reached a saturation point; van Toch is keenly aware of the extent to which Europe can no longer easily extract wealth from the periphery of the world system—there is nothing left to “guzzle up,” he bemoans.[5] Yet he does discover something significant, a species of highly tractable newts that are adept at hunting oysters, using tools, and even employing rudimentary speech. Having discovered this species, van Toch acquires the financial backing of a Czech industrialist to cultivate the newts for military and commercial purposes. In time, the breeding of newts leads to the militarization and overpopulation of the species, which turns against humans, provoking a global crisis and (it is hinted) the decline of humankind. 

Fig. 2: Saturn, as seen from the Cassini space probe. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

At the level of plot, War with the Newts documents the spread of human culture, industry, and media across a uniform terrestrial space, with the newts standing as a cipher for the political and cultural agon of the world system in the 1930s (including issues of labor, race relations, armaments, religion, nationalism, etc.). Significantly, these issues are formally mediated through Čapek’s use of montage, which mimics global flows of capital, information, and culture. The novel is composed of a diverse array of global media forms, including reports from international congresses, manifestos, minutes from corporate meetings, letters to the editor, philosophical tracts, articles from scientific journals, market reports, histories, and newspapers. The formal structure of the novel suggests that War with the Newts is a self-consciously “global” novel; it imagines the globe as a bounded space across which capital, culture, and forms of knowledge circulate, outstripping the perceptual and experiential capacities of any single protagonist. But the novel simultaneously transcends the bounds of the “global” because it links industrial modernity to concerns with the species as a whole. In the concluding chapters, a wearied humanity is found literally mortgaging away the habitable earth in order to preserve the status quo. Who is to blame? “Every factory in the world. Every bank. Every country” (Čapek, War with the Newts, 237). The processes of industrial modernity that spur the rise of the newts and underwrite the formal structure of the novel are the very same that threaten to permanently undermine the habitability of the planet. In this novel, capital and its cultural institutions do more than provoke nature; culture and industry subsume nature. In so doing, the novel suggests, global capitalism is necessarily planetary. Mapping the proliferation of human institutions across ecosystems both formally and thematically, the novel generates for readers an affective experience of the consequences inherent in the systems of culture, commerce, and politics that constitute our modernity. Čapek thereby attempts to register the significance of modernity as an epochal event in the life of the planet.

Unlike War with the Newts, Stapledon’s Star Maker offers an analysis of modernity as a planetary crisis by directing its main character away from the globe altogether. Instead of documenting the extension of capital across terrestrial space, Stapledon’s narrator spends the bulk of the novel attempting to understand the varying scales of time and space in which the planet and the human species are situated. The novel begins as a nameless narrator wanders alone in the hills outside his house after having quarreled with his wife. Looking up at the cosmos above, he endures a kind of out-of-body experience in which he is granted a vision of ever-larger cosmic scales of space and time. Beginning first with planets, then with solar systems and galaxies, the narrator surveys the unruly variety of life in the cosmos before contemplating the significance of a cosmic order in which vast civilizations rise up only to be consumed in holocausts of divine indifference. Ultimately, he is granted a vision of the “Star Maker,” the force that creates all cosmic matter, before glimpsing the totality of the Earth in the novel’s final pages.

Though Star Maker pursues a very different formal and political agenda than War with the Newts, both novels endow technological and economic powers with planetary significance for the species. In Star Maker, Stapledon’s nameless narrator encounters a host of life forms for whom planetary domination represents a significant evolutionary crossroads, one path leading toward higher planes of vitality and the other toward species collapse. Most species he encounters have attained the ability to adapt their planets and themselves to new purpose but without gaining a sense of how to wield their power. For example, on one planet the narrator encounters a set of species he calls the Ichthyoids and Arachnoids. After having achieved a high degree of technological sophistication, these species devolve into mass warfare and poison their own planet. Their modernity and “[t]he delicate tissue of knowledge” upon which it depends “began to disintegrate” and endanger the viability of civilization altogether.[6] Such apocalypses are exceedingly common throughout Stapledon’s survey of the cosmos. However fanciful these scenarios may seem, the novel stresses that they are driven by “the same spiritual crisis as that which underlies the plight of Homo Sapiens today” (Stapledon, Star Maker, 71). This crisis is nothing less than the inability of species to master the planetary powers they possess, and thereby to confront the threat they pose to their own evolutionary development. Indeed, Star Maker contextualizes the entire journey of the narrator through the cosmos by placing his action under the shadow of World War II. Referred to simply as “the coming storm,” the war appears as the unnamed apocalypse that looms on the horizon of our planetary domination (262). In this sense, Stapledon suggests that industrial modernity is not merely a historical crisis, but rather an epochal event—a moment in which the species must either learn to tame its technological powers or see its evolutionary ascent halted.

What is the answer to the problem raised by a phenomenon that threatens to undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolution? For Stapledon, the ability to successfully navigate the promises and pitfalls of modernity as a planetary condition depend on the experience of scale itself. Stapledon’s novel calls for a new imagination in which human endeavors are read against the scales of time and space that both efface and enrich our own significance. After glimpsing all of time and space in a single moment, Stapledon’s narrator sees the totality of the Earth in the novel’s final scene: “I saw the whole land curving down from me, over the planet’s shoulder. The villages were strung together on a mesh of roads, steel lines, and humming wires” (260). Surveying each continent in turn, noting culture, masses of people, and the marks of industry that unite the globe a single, teeming unity, Stapledon’s narrator is struck by “[t]he whole planet, the whole rock-grain, with its busy swarms” (262). These swarms are revealed in this final vision as a species locked in a struggle to master its own planetary powers and recognize its shared dilemma. This, he concludes, is “the great struggle of our age” (262). In his vision of a planetary totality, Stapledon’s narrator experiences the Earth and the human species in a new scalar framework. Planet Earth and the species appear fragile and fleeting, spatially minuscule and temporally transitory. Paradoxically for Stapledon, the experience of scale makes the plight of species both cosmically negligible and transcendently urgent. In the “cold light of the stars,” he writes, “the human crisis does not lose but gains significance” (263, emphasis added). Viewed in the context of millions or billions of years, the human species appears precarious, liable to snuff itself out in its evolutionary adolescence. But it is also a marvel of intense beauty, a miracle of cosmic significance. The scalar experiment of the novel is thus an attempt to generate for readers an experience of the species—to help readers feel the necessity of a common human culture directed toward safeguarding our planetary home, and to dramatize the dangers that inhere in failing to do so.

I have suggested that early science fiction offered a particularly trenchant analysis of modernity as an epochal event, a fact which can perhaps be explained by its interest those disciplines like astronomy, paleontology, and anthropology that were actively reshaping the historical scales of the human species and the geological planet. Indeed, as Charles M. Tung notes in the recent Modernism/modernity special issue on “Modernist Inhumanisms,” early twentieth-century “interest in scale and scope was, among other things, a way of grappling with the long-term impact of the fetish for ephemerality and the limitations of narrative as an anthropocentric down-scaling device” (519). However, the drive to represent the planetary consequences of industrial modernity through new temporal scales was not exclusively that of science fiction; for Tung, “The search for new clocks and the defamiliarization of olds ones […] are quintessentially modernist projects” (525). Gillian Beer, for example, has noted Woolf’s indebtedness to the astronomy of James Jeans and Arthur Eddington, while Holly Henry has shown that Woolf’s late fiction shares with Star Maker (a novel she greatly admired) a concern with planetary scales of time.[7] Whether concern with planetarity can reasonably be limited to early science fiction, the point remains that the modernist era witnessed diverse thinkers assessing the role of human endeavors within planetary temporal frames and imagining literary forms adequate to such scales.

In the final paragraph of Star Maker, Stapledon’s narrator bluntly asks, “How to face such an age?” (262). As a reader and teacher, I find this question the most contemporary moment in all of modernism. It is the question that I often ask my students: how are we to respond to a world in which our modernity simultaneously threatens the habitability of our planet and stands as the very thing we would seek to preserve? How are we to confront a historical moment whose ecological consequences have become legible at geological scales of time that threaten to efface our own significance (to say nothing of our cherished literary periods)?

Fig. 3: Earth and the moon’s shadow as seen during the total solar eclipse of August 2017. NASA EPIC Team.

At their most limited, the texts I have highlighted here offer a reminder that thinking about species, geological time, and scale have roots in the modernist period and informed its aesthetic practices across the world system. At their grandest, however, these texts attempt to mediate the planetary consequences of global capitalism in ways that may usefully defamiliarize the unfolding crisis of the Anthropocene for contemporary readers. By decoupling the plight of populations from a more contemporary language of ecology (e.g. climate change, fossil fuels, conservation, etc.), they throw into relief a historical problem that arose in tandem with modernity itself. For these authors, “modernity” and “the planet” are terms that inextricably linked; to be “modern” is to exist within a system of relationships that is both spatially extensive (i.e. global) and which collapses incommensurate scales of human and geological time (i.e. planetary). This understanding of planetarity is not a critical model that would allow us to historicize, categorize, or diagnose the salient features of “modernism” as a whole. But by looking at the planet within modernism (rather than modernism within the planet), we can see the particular ways in which writers assimilated the wholesale transformation of human life under industrial modernity to a vision of the future of the human species.

If the planetary stakes of modernity were forefront for Stapledon and Čapek writing in the 1930s, how much more urgent might they be today?


[1] Wai-chee Dimock, “Planetary Time and Global Translation: ‘Context’ in Literary Studies,” Common Knowledge 9, no. 3 (2003): 488–507, 489.

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

[3] See Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222.

[4] Chakrabarty notes that one of the most difficult problems of the Anthropocene is that even as global warming threatens the viability of our species, our collective response is inhibited by our phenomenological distance from the species. He writes, “We humans never experience ourselves as a species. We can only intellectually comprehend or infer the existence of the human species but never experience it as such.  There could be no phenomenology of us as a species.  Even if we were to emotionally identify with a word like mankind, we would not know what being a species is, for, in species history, humans are only an instance of the concept species as indeed would be any other life form. But one never experiences being a concept” (Climate of History, 220, emphasis in original). The problem of species is just one of several raised by phenomena that are planetary in nature, but which do not impinge on everyday experience of individuals or communities. It is in addressing these phenomena that literature, like history, may do its most important work.

[5] Karel Čapek, War with the Newts, trans. Ewald Osers (Highland Park, NJ: Catbird Press, 1985), 10.

[6] Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker, ed. Patrick A. McCarthy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 108.

[7] See Gillian Beer, “Physics, Sound, and Substance: Later Woolf,” in Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 112–124. See also Holly Henry, Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Henry specifically links Woolf’s concern with scale to Stapledon and popular science of the period. She writes, “By deploying in their novels a movement from the microscopic to the ‘cosmic immensities,’ both Woolf and Stapledon tapped into popular concerns regarding the significant relation between the expanses of the universe and humans—those mere atoms by comparison” (Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science, 116). Woolf famously praised Star Maker, writing to Stapledon that he was “grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction.” Woolf admits to “envying” him “as one does those who reach what one has aimed at” (quoted in Robert Crossley, Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future [Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994], 249).