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Responses to the Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory

It’s been nearly a year now since the publication of M/m’s special issue on Weak Theory, a year of conversations both here on Print Plus—and, as Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir point out, across a range of other professional and para-professional spaces of engagement. Many thanks to all who have taken part! As we bring this Year of Weak Theory to a close with responses from the original special issue authors, we hope and expect that these discussions of issues so important to the future of modernist studies will continue to ripple across the field.

Debra Rae Cohen

Grace Lavery and Paul K. Saint-Amour: Still Weak After All These Years

Twenty-four pieces by twenty-eight contributors, appearing over seven months: as published here on Print Plus, the responses to last September’s special issue on Weak Theory have been extraordinary in their number and variety. Those of us whose essays made up the special issue have been heartened to find such an energetic consideration of our particular claims and readings as well as of the field in general, and we’ve been instructed by what we’ve read. We’ve been fascinated, too, to see the sheer range of reactions the issue has provoked. Respondents describe weak theory, variously, as having “strengthened the field” (Margaret Konkol) and as “a symptom of decadence” (Julian Murphet); as “virtue signaling” (Aaron Jaffe and Michael F. Miller) and as “minimiz[ing] the feedback loops that result in . . . bad faith” (Cliff Mak); as helping us “imagine a future time at which we might know more, and repair better” (Pamela Thurschwell) and as “a Trumpian combover of bad ideas” (David Ayers). For reasons of space, the five replies we offer here will not try to mount a detailed, point-for-point exchange with each response or even to touch on every piece. Instead we’ll take up themes and patterns we saw running through the responses and single out a few moments that seemed especially salient, surprising, or generative to us, all with an eye toward imagining where these conversations might go next. First, though, we’d like to express our warm thanks to Debra Rae Cohen and her colleagues on the journal’s editorial staff for soliciting and hosting these exchanges, and to all of our respondents for taking the time to read and engage with our work.

Now to shift from one we to another—namely from the full roster of the special issue’s contributors to the two authors of this first reply. And not incidentally, as questions about we-statements arose frequently in the responses. Who gets included and who excluded by first-person plural claims about a field? By what authority, on whose behalf, and from what position, do the claimants make such claims? “Please,” asks Holly Laird in her piece, “can we not revert . . . to a presumptive ‘we’?” Partly in response to Laird’s appeal, we (Grace and Paul) wanted to explore how an elective “we” might offer us an alternative both to making broad claims about the field and to exercising some of the brittler reflexes prompted by the individual author function. At the same time, we suggest that a total embargo on broader we-statements might do more to curb a community’s self-scrutiny than to abet it. Such statements are not only key means of exhorting one another (as many of the special issue’s respondents do) but also ways of trying out ideas about a group through a speculative hailing of its members. (There is no scapegoating without “we”; neither is there reparation, nor democracy.) We-statements, especially when they go awry, can help revise working theories about a collectivity by locating those theories’ edges, occlusions, and internal fissures. If weak theory implies a “we” theory, it might be this: We-statements are necessarily provisional, always in the subjunctive mood.

Still, as Yan Tang reminds us in her response, “the subjunctive mood is not innocent.” Yes, modernism has become definitionally loose, but its provisionality may be precisely what allows “the weakening but never vanished subject of the West” to go on naming things, and being named, as modernist. Rather than attempt to tame this “wicked problem” of modernism definitionally, Tang would have us attend to the field’s socioeconomic and ideological structures and to our enunciative positionalities within them. Her concluding thought experiment—a use of the subjunctive mood to imagine a subject constituted differently in relation to the name “modernism”—harmonizes with Katherine Fusco’s call for counterfactual thinking, and is worth repeating here:

[W]hat would it look like if one compiled an anthology of modernism—simply “Modernism” or “Introduction to Modernism” instead of “Global Modernism” or any other “adjective + Modernism”—that consisted of only non-white and non-straight writers? What if this anthology became the most important publishing event of the year, not because of its “inclusion” or “recovery” of marginalized works, not because of its groundbreaking new theorization of modernism, but simply because it did not feel the urgency to legitimize its name?

Such a volume would redistribute modernism’s cultural capital without the condescension, special pleading, and incrementalism that can accompany more nominal renegotiations of the brand. In failing or refusing to “feel the urgency to legitimize,” Tang’s anthology might moreover escape the undertow of appetite and remorse, expansion and consolidation, that tends to define the cultural project of modernism according to a negative dialectic of exclusion and incorporation.

Several other responses shift attention from weak theory to the weak theorist—to the embodied, gendered, socially and institutionally positioned figure to whom even the weakest theory is pinned. Focusing on the special issue’s introduction, Lisa Mendelman produces a characterology of the weak theorist, whose traits—ambivalence, anxiety, uncertainty, possibly paranoia—she associates with “modernist character, both then and now.” This is a welcome invitation to consider how critical dispositions inherit, transmute, and exhibit the traits of their objects of study. We want to resist, though, the notion that one scholar—less, a single essay by one scholar—can usefully be said to epitomize something called “the weak theorist.” Mendelman acknowledges that “embodied individuals vitally outlive the frame,” but it’s also the case that the frame exceeds the individuals. Weak theory, while being inflected by the critical temper of any given performance, is irreducible to a single typology, as a characterological census of the issue’s contributors and the theorists they cite would confirm. Weak theory comes without a tag-yourself meme.

Straw Men, Strong Men, and No-Drama Totalities

Might weak theory be a quixotic duel with an imaginary foe? A fake fight manufactured to rhetorical and possibly careerist ends? Laird finds “strong theory” and the “strong man” functioning in the issue as straw men, dismissively invoked but never given tangible shape in particular critics or readings. Stephen Ross worries “that the new weakness derives much of its force from precisely the fact that it has no real opponents,” at least in the present, adding that Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious seems to be the post-critical turn’s lone touchstone for critique. One respondent, at least, appears to step forward as strong theory’s present-tense champion. Where a number of others felt constrained by the weak–strong binary, Murphet accepts it and declares for strong. Strong assertions: “to enter into fugitive compact with the Absolute—the One—the works of modernism were obliged to become hard.” Strong adjectives: “what is hard is strong, robust, unyielding.” Strong definitions: “what distinguished [modernism] was always a powerful, totemic idea of the Whole—a unity, a governing action, a sovereign principle—wrenched violently from the ruins of the sacred, and reintegrated by fiat . . . on the plane of the aesthetic.” Strong gatekeeping: “It is that, it seems to me, or it is nothing.” And above all a strong opposition between decadence (in its variously “corpulent,” “cadaverous,” “waxy and pallid” iterations) and modernism, which will carve away fatness, excess, rot, and weakness and reintegrate what decadence has spilled.

Weak theory being for Murphet “a symptom of decadence” in the present, what’s called for is a return to modernism’s stiff refusal of “baggy limpness,” its aesthetic-cum-political stand against “emotional softness.” Never mind the effaced continuities between decadence and modernism recently mapped by Vincent Sherry.[1] The rise of fascist nativism, the persistence of antiblack and misogynist violence (we would add anti-queer and anti-trans violence), the global refugee crisis, anthropogenic climate change—all of these press hard on our moment, and Murphet urges a tougher, gutsier response than “some shoulder-shrugging ‘epistemological humility.’” But we doubt, first of all, that making modernism strong again is the way to combat fascism in the present, given that a thick strand of strong modernism had a well-known fascism problem of its own. Murphet’s faith in the equivalence between aesthetic form-breaking and radical left politics simply isn’t upheld by the history of the “high” modernism he celebrates. And it is belied by the cultural practices of contemporary white supremacy, which both proudly avows its continuity with Identity Evropa and endlessly produces its own fascist avant-gardes—which in turn attack (though of course with a very different agenda) the self-same cultural “decadence” that Murphet perceives within weak theory. So his portrait of “modernist studies [as having] sharpened the critical knives of generations of young radicals” seems wishful at best. At its core, Murphet’s response exhibits two convictions you don’t have to be a weak theorist to reject: first, that there’s a short, straight line between literary critical method and political action; and second, that (left) political action has nothing to learn from weakly-tied social networks, low-bar alliance-making, or coalitional aesthetics. In the end, we’re not sure we wouldn’t prefer a decadent culture to a culture that wasn’t decadent, if the price of the latter were permanent rigidity.

Still, Murphet’s attachment to a modernism invested in “a powerful, totemic idea of the Whole” connects his remarks to those of other respondents concerned with the fate of totality in a weakly theorized conception of modernism. Timothy Wientzen, while largely sympathetic to both the weak theoretical turn and the multiple-modernities thesis, warns that we must not lose a sense of modernity’s ecological singularity and totality, the kind that permits us to speak of “the planet, the species, the Anthropocene.” In adopting this position, Wientzen grazes one of the central debates in environmental studies today, between advocates and critics of a singular Anthropocene. The most recent entry in this debate, Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, excoriates those whom the Anthropocene has taught to say “we” only “when the entrappings of late liberalism become threatened,” and then as a way of effacing the history of exploitation and dispossession whose beneficiaries felt responsible to a far narrower “we.”[2] If humans wish to stick around for much more of the Anthropocene, goes one response to Yusoff, we must learn that our deplorable history has produced a world-scaled condition of endangerment from which no one is exempt. As a field, modernist studies may or may not contribute materially to this encounter between necessarily strong theories. But if it participates at all, it will be thanks to the weakening of modernism’s sovereign hold on the field. And what it contributes may well include what Konkol describes as weakly ecological methods—the kinds of proximate analyses and attachments that can keep you from shutting down when the scale, rage, and urgency of any number of strong environmentalisms leave you reeling from apocalypse fatigue.

Where for Konkol, “thinking environmentally is the weakest of weak theory” and thus something like weak theory avant la lettre, for another cluster of respondents, philosophical pragmatism is weak theory’s elided forerunner. Kate Stanley’s response aligns the pluralist ambit of William James’s pragmatism with Silvan Tomkins’s emphasis on the social functions of thought and feeling. Central to her insight is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding that the philosophical claims of scholars are not qualitatively different from the everyday practices, folk-ways, and vernacular theories of everyone else. Lisi Schoenbach, whose Pragmatic Modernism is the major study to date on the subject, extends that analysis, reading John Dewey’s engagement with Trotsky (and Trotskyism) as prefiguring the confrontation of weak and strong theory.[3]

Taking Schoenbach’s account of the disagreement between Dewey and Trotsky as a model, we can see from some of the responses how such a confrontation plays out at the level of rhetorical style as well, in the divergence between hortative and ameliorative modes of persuasion. The hortative mode’s left expression is the drive to accelerate—to “sharpen the contradictions,” as Marx puts it.[4] The ameliorative prefers to “de-dramatize” the political event—not, in Lauren Berlant’s words, to “get us towards the metaphysically real,” but to attend to “incommensurate forces that converge in a scene in such a way that recontextualizes the intractable and therefore transforms what it can do.”[5] But before we decide that it is the de-dramatizers, rather than the sharpeners, who surrender the domain of the political in favor of a metaphysical fantasy, we might recall that as recently as June, theory’s most gung-ho left-accelerationist defended his having supported Donald Trump for President in 2016. Hence, perhaps, the otherwise surprising recourse of the avowedly strong theorists to Nietzsche, a thinker facially incompatible with a left account of the political. Although Nietzsche’s disgust for weakness and virtue, signaled or otherwise, was inextricable from his racial paranoia, his polemics are now routinely conscripted to legitimate an inflationary rhetoric of amplification, immanentization, escalation, acceleration, and contradiction-sharpening.

We might call weak theory, then, that which de-dramatizes totality without repudiating it. If the pragmatists were united by their attempt to dissolve metaphysics into utility—to ask of an idea, as James did, “What is its cash-value in terms of practical experience?”—weak theorists share the more modest goal of weakening prevailing accounts of causal logic.[6] As such, weak theory, as constellated in the special issue and described in the responses, is comfortable remaining within the domains of doubt, resistance, incoherence, anti-systematicity, and recalcitrance; of situational or provisional reasoning, nonsense, and orneriness. As Berlant argues, these regions of our thinking and experience are not valuable because they draw us towards the metaphysical richness of the specific or local; weak theory is not merely strong realism. They matter because they may offer protection, however scant or temporary, against the imperative to inflate and totalize.

Weak Causalities

Let’s think further about causality. “Let’s” implies another kind of “us”—one that invites distantiation and demurral: “um, let’s not.” The difference between the “us” of “let’s” and the universal “us” is that when we say “let’s,” or “let us,” we imply a relationship that is both intersubjective (I ask you to allow something to happen) and collective (I propose something in hopes that the proposal will convene a group capable of carrying it out). Let’s think about causality, then, since when we are thinking about “theory” we are thinking about it anyway: the whatever-it-is we search for that causes a text to be just so (ideology/intention/technique/etc.); the upstream cause of any of those causes (the unconscious/the Base/negativity/“history”/antiblackness/etc.).

We propose that the distinctiveness of weak theory concerns a relative weakening in the force we ascribe to causality. In Wai Chee Dimock’s work, a theory is weak not merely because it fails or refuses to clinch the deal, but because it leaves room for coincidence to possess some metaphysical substance. By way of illustration: in 1955, Kay Thompson, who lived at the Plaza Hotel in the southwest corner of New York’s Central Park, published Eloise. Illustrated by Hilary Knight, Thompson’s book revolved around a playful, bossy, scandalously pleasure-taking young girl. Although later repackaged as a children’s book, Eloise was originally marketed, according to a banner on its first-edition dust jacket, as “[a] book for precocious grownups, about a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel.” Also in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov, who a few years earlier had volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History on the same side of the park, published Lolita, which depicts (among other things) a moral crisis engendered by the eroticization of an American girl—a moral crisis that, inescapably, the novel also inflicts on its readers. The names given to the girls at the center of these stories, “Lolita” and “Eloise,” are nearly phonetic anagrams. Given the notorious complicity that Nabokov’s narrator extorts from his readers in his novel’s opening sentences, which describe the delicious position of a mouth speaking the pet name, “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth,” the thought occurs to one: how does it feel in one’s mouth to say “Eloise”?[7] The first-person narrator-protagonist of Eloise takes delight, too, and of a “slightly risqué” kind (to adapt the title of a Vanity Fair article published on the occasion of Eloise’s half-century) in saying her own name: “for me ELOISE.”

Two writers working in utterly distinct genres (adult-oriented picture book; literary fiction) but working with undeniably similar fragments of language, appended to uncannily aligned cartoons of childish female flesh, published to massive success in the same year, and both with an intimate knowledge of the same corner of Central Park.Weak Modernisms

One can imagine some strong causal connection by which one of these events caused the other. (“What’s that, Vlad?” asked Kay, after bumping into the bookish gentleman she often saw walking around the Heckscher Ballfields. “You’re writing a book about a girl named Louise? Interesting . . .”). Or a scenario in which a single event caused both. (A young woman, jogging breezily up towards the lake, bumps into the elegantly-attired lady on the bench, causing her to spill her coffee on the gentleman, a perfect stranger, who sits next to her: “I’m so sorry!”; “My goodness, madam, I don’t blame you . . .”). A sketch of such a narrative would encompass all the pleasure of paranoia—indeed, it would give the lie to the notion that paranoia is always a “negative affect”—but it could hardly be true. And it could be easily disproved—and, when disproved, easily transferred into the realm of phantasm and compensatory hallucination. This would be a strong theory, a “fan theory,” even (perhaps) a “conspiracy theory.”

One can also imagine a different response: This is sheer coincidence. Entertaining to contemplate, though not without a rather prurient and slightly creepy dimension, and yet devoid of any heuristic significance for serious readers of Nabokov or Thompson. This, too, would be a strong theory, and although its strength would take the logical form of negation, the model of causality that would be negated would be of the same type as in the first response.

The history of modernism, by which term we mean both the character of a historical event in whose wake we write and attempt to make meaning and the ongoing processes of repression and reinscription by which that event writes itself into the present, is a catalogue of attempts to find more compelling kinds of answers to such convergences than either of the two described above. It includes psychoanalytic reasoning, which would attempt to derive meaning from the overdetermined (which, perhaps counterintuitively, means weakly determinative) figurative power of the young girl (Freud, Klein), the structural exigencies of the phoneme (Lacan), or the possibility of a spatial or political logic into which Nabokov and Thompson may have tapped (Jung, Jameson). It includes various forms of feminist and queer criticism, which might draw our attention to the construction of the young white girl on the cusp of sexual availability as the prototype for post-war consumerist domesticity (Armstrong), the centralizing force of sentimentality as a technique for managing the contradictions of late capitalism (Berlant), or the normative demand to organize not merely one’s personal priorities, but one’s cosmology, around the specter of a child to be adored from a distance (Edelman). It encompasses, too, the new historicisms that contest nominalist and expressive theories of history, proposing models of historical causality that frame the past as text-like, and therefore subject to psychic recapitulation and intervention (Greenblatt)—as a set of interpretive situations, perhaps emerging from dialectical contradiction but felt and reproduced in a variety of other gendered, racialized, and acculturated domains (Gallagher). And as many other weak theories as theories, none of them more than suggestively persuasive, none of them content to offer only claims that they can prove.

As influential as any of these is the work of the critic often named as the antagonist of avowedly weak theories, Fredric Jameson. The aforementioned Political Unconscious proceeds by first describing the “billiard ball” form of causality that one can apply in scientific reasoning, then the weaker form of “expressive causality” that Hegel attributes to the historical dialectic, and finally the “structural causality” of Althusserian Marxism.[8] What Jameson commends as a “Marxist method of literary and cultural interpretation” is the recovery, through dialectical method, of the singularity of history (Political Unconscious, 74). While Jameson’s textual ecology is certainly dualistic, both rhetorically and methodologically it moves from complexity to simplicity, and from the hidden to the already apparent. One of the slogans with which his work is associated, “History is what hurts,” is after all an assertion about the apparentness of history, its all-too-present spur in the side (102). History is not what we hunt for; it is what hunts for us.

Even Jameson? We have some sympathy (Grace and Paul do) with those who want weak theory to have some clear opponents, so that we can judge its merits by testing it against its opposite numbers. But since we are not pushing weak theory so much as observing its effects (effects that, sure, produce complex normative logics), and especially since neither Paul’s introductory essay nor the special issue as a whole can be taken as a manifesto, we can only offer the same kind of shrug as some of the critics who have described this work, in a series of sometimes very gracious euphemisms, as studiously irrelevant. Weak theory is, among other things, a certain pragmatic skepticism about the relevance racket, the market-driven model of scholarship whose inflationary logic insists, first, that fascism and/or neoliberalism can be meaningfully impeded by a type of literary and cultural criticism that more adequately approximates masculine forms of militancy and/or militant forms of masculinity; and second, that, despite having never succeeded in achieving that goal in the past, encore un effort with the negative dialectic—and if we don’t have capitalism licked, exactly, at least we’ll have really gotten its number this time. Weak theory refuses to accept “quietism” as the slur it is often intended to be. For some members of targeted populations, for many whose existence is precarious, quietness is survival—and survival is radical, world-ending love.

So as a politics—one almost wants to say “a politics of closetedness,” except that, as Sedgwick teaches us, closetedness is the universal given under modernity, rather than the willed—weak theory is as accommodating to modes of pessimistic inaction as it is to legal reformism, as it is to radical agitation, as it is to implacable cynicism, as it is to “depression” (as theorized by Ann Cvetkovich) and “flat affect” (as noted by Berlant), as it is to jubilant, bank-smashing elation. Indeed, like pragmatism’s approach to metaphysics, weak theory generally treats these apparent contraries as varieties of political mood often encompassed by the same subject, rather than positions between which any individual could meaningfully be asked (or forced) to choose. It may chuckle, smirk, and say “lol whatever, dude, you do you” to the Marxist bros whose revolutionary antagonism begins and ends in the seminar room. But weak theory has no objection to the rational structure of the antagonism itself. On the contrary, the transparent gaps in such a theoretical practice—its conspicuous futility, the self-evidently compensatory dimension of the desire it brings into being—are sources of germination and commonality.

Practices that are at once oppositional and weak-theoretical currently guide and inspire our work—and maybe your work—in modernist studies and beyond. They include work in queer theory on anti-anti-normativity, and on disability justice-oriented critiques of the ableist logic that underpins normative models of political action.[9] Crucial alternatives to permanent acceleration appear in the work of Afro-Pessimist scholars such as Calvin Warren, for whom the conditioning antiblackness of the contemporary subject is a matter of foundational ontology rather than political emplotment, and in the face of which the most urgently necessary responses are spiritual.[10] Although the time has passed in which it would have made sense to be a Foucauldian or a Deleuzian, we are moved by Foucault’s “Preface” to Anti-Oedipus, in which he treats the book as proposing an “art of living counter to all forms of fascism,” including “the fascism in our heads and in our everyday behavior,” and, perhaps most challengingly of all, “in the body.”[11] (Foucault likewise positions Deleuze and Guattari against “the political ascetics, the sad militant . . . bureaucrats of the revolution,” adding “do not think that one has to be sad to be militant” [xii-xiii].) We draw inspiration, then, from the immanent and revolutionary weak- theoretical practices of black bloc and antifa groups, whose accounts of social space tend to emphasize sanctuary and safety, whose modes of interpersonal relation value care and accountability, and whose actions against property tend to be microscopically planned so as to produce particular outcomes.[12] These texts do something other than redouble an effort to describe the badness of a bad world, yet without relinquishing their claims on both healing and justice. On healing as the possibility that some “we” might emerge in historical time that was capable of being made whole; on justice as the condition of immanence in which fascism is abolished. They converge on the rhetorical device of an avowal, that might be reframed as follows: theory has always been weak; it isn’t getting any stronger; the inflationary polemics that present like strength read like futility itself; and, facing the extinction event of fascism (which has always been with us), that very weakness might be a virtue worth signaling.

Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir: Weak Theory in the Mainly Precarious Room

How does the structural position of the theorist impact the relative strength or weakness of the theory? In Lisa Mendelman’s response to the essays in the special issue and the four waves of responses published afterward, she draws our attention to the figure of “the weak-theorizing modernist literary critic.” While the bulk of the earlier responses focused on Paul Saint-Amour’s introduction to the issue and its provocative claims regarding the necessary relationship between the weakness of the term “modernism” as a theory and the strength of “modernist studies” as a field, Mendelman—one of only five untenured assistant professors to publish in this Print Plus series alongside seventeen tenured professors, five graduate students, and zero non-tenure-track or adjunct professors—smartly asked us to consider the subject as well as the object of weak theory, its writers alongside its texts.

At issue, for Mendelman, is “not just which weaknesses count as strengths or virtues, but for whom those weaknesses register as strengths and virtues, and when and where and how that valuation occurs.” Interrogative pronouns take us from objects to agents and contexts. Who gets to decide which forms of weakness are virtuous and enabling? Do the privileged positions of the weak theorists populating the original special issue supersede the claims we make on behalf of our objects of study? These are the unavoidable questions that lead Mendelman to identify the characterological features of the weak theorist: outwardly ambivalent, a tad confessional, and performatively insecure. If these qualities succeed in charming the reader, it is because they work in tandem with another deeper form of characterological artifact: reputation. Built over decades of scholarly excellence, the reputations of at least two weak theorists in the special issue, Saint-Amour and Wai Chee Dimock, transform any rhetorical ambivalence into “esteemed discernment.”

Institutional Protection and Vulnerability

Although professional reputation is never independent of the intersectional embodiments of race, gender, sexuality, and able-ness, it also derives from one’s body of work, rank, and institutional affiliation. Reputation, in other words, is where characterological and structural positioning meet. Many of the responses to the special issue, including those by Cyraina Johnson-Rouiller, Holly Laird, Cliff Mak, Elizabeth M. Sheehan, Susan Stanford Friedman, Yan Tang, Pamela Thurschwell, and Timothy Wientzen, raised important points about the difficulty of taking the descriptive value of weak theory at its word. Sure, it denotes a style of reasoning indebted to the postmodern critique of grand narratives. Okay, it initiates a debate about what constitutes “doing theory” in response to the pressures of capitalism. But in the minds of the unconverted, something about “weak theory” remains out of touch with or inadvertently condescending to the struggles of outsiders. Weak theory, in becoming bound up with the fractiousness around global modernism, unintentionally feeds into the negative association of diversity with the lowering of standards (Tang). Weak theorists, who are too institutionally protected from precarity and other demeaning conditions, mischaracterize the decolonizing persistence of previous generations of feminists, critical race theorists, and scholar-activists when embracing weakness as an umbrella term (Friedman, Madelyn Detloff).

These reservations from generous and astute critics do not come as a surprise to us, because we share them. While co-writing our essay “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism,” we were keenly aware of how easy it would be for a special issue on “Weak Theory” to end up another chapter in the method wars waged around critique. While this still might be our inevitable fate, we are heartened to see that at least one powerful thread sewn through the accumulated responses on Print Plus calls for “explicit discussions of how our scholarship and field are positioned in academic institutions that promise redistribution and inclusion while often—but not always—upholding the status quo.” Elizabeth M. Sheehan’s turn from modernist studies to critical university studies via Roderick Ferguson and Sara Ahmed takes weak theoretical debates into the all-important arena of institutional politics. Sheehan relates Ahmed’s feminist and queer phenomenology of institutional life to Gianni Vattimo’s formulations of weak thought, but what she doesn’t mention is that Ahmed left the academy in 2016 because she was tired of countenancing the status quo. Though we would not exactly describe her current situation as one of structural weakness, Ahmed changed the position from which she criticizes the university. In becoming more clearly an outsider to its ranks, she has allied herself with those bodies forced out of institutions of higher education. She describes her resignation in the following terms:

That I could resign depended upon having material resources and security. But it still felt like I was going out on a limb: I did not just feel like I was just leaving a job, or an institution, but also a life, an academic life; a life I had loved; a life I was used to. And that act of leaving was a form of feminist snap: there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore, those walls of indifference that were stopping us from getting anywhere; that were stopping us from getting through. Once the bond had snapped, I realised that I had been trying to hold onto something that had already broken.

Ahmed left her position at Goldsmiths in response to its failure to address the particular, ongoing problem of sexual harassment. Though Ahmed is vague about the terms of this failure, she intimates that it is linked to the consistent prioritization of “organizational reputation” over the protection of vulnerable bodies. Her resignation also cites the university’s wider refusal of certain forms of contestation: “Even when we had policy reviews, and policy changes, the review process was not opened up for a general discussion.” What Ahmed describes as the “feminist snap” is the moment of release that accompanies negative freedom (“going out on a limb”). It is exhilarating and it is frightening to break with the professional life she had known for so long.

In writing “Obliterature,” we did not deploy the feminist snap, but we were fascinated by precursors to it in the institutional critiques posed by Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Kate Zambreno’s Heroines. Rather than rehearse our argument here, we’ll reflect a bit more about the distance between the professionalism of our own argument and the amateurism of the criticism we praised. Ahmed acknowledges the material security it takes to resign a post. We acknowledge the material security of our positions as tenured and tenure-track faculty at R1 universities with ample research support. Those positions made it possible for us to write our article. Our professional networks and mentors—more bluntly, our connections—facilitated its publication in Modernism/modernity and laid the groundwork for the embarrassment of riches that came afterward with the Print Plus series of responses to the special issue. We cannot escape how our structural strength grows through our ongoing contributions to this conversation, but we can use that strength to keep diverting attention elsewhere. Namely, we want to talk about how matters of weak theory resonate alongside what Scott Herring calls our “fragile profession,” and we want to do so while continuing to amplify the voices of other scholars in structurally weaker positions.

Slowly but steadily, scholars at every level have begun to pay more sustained attention to both the material and intellectual effects of the current conditions of academic labor. If, as various studies have shown, over 70% of all university-level instructors are contingent laborers, how does that affect the scholarship being produced today?[1] What kinds of ideas—coming out of what kinds of academic backgrounds and pedigrees—are able to flourish in these conditions, and why? In an important roundtable on “The Future of Modernist Studies in the Age of Precarity” that will take place at the upcoming MSA conference in October 2019, a diverse group of mostly early-career scholars will discuss the relationship between the current state of modernist studies and the precarious labor practices that shift and shape the field as well as the larger infrastructure of higher education itself. In their proposal for this roundtable, the authors specifically query the absence of a sustained discussion of precarity within the ongoing conversation about weak theory: “What does it mean, for instance, to speak of a ‘weak’ modernism, as Paul Saint-Amour and others do in the recent special edition of Modernism/modernity, without reckoning with the actual weakness of the field in terms of its present labor arrangements—nor acknowledging how a turn to weakness might reflect the conditions of precarity?”[2] These are necessary and timely questions, and we are hopeful that the audience for this roundtable will be structurally diverse rather than comprised entirely of the academic precariat. As James Alexander Fraser live-tweeted with respect to a similar session at the BAMS “Troublesome Modernisms” conference in June 2019, all too often “[t]he job of discussing precarity and the discussion of actual labour has been left to the precarious.”Weak Modernisms

Saunders refers to Helen Saunders, who completed her PhD in 2017 and now works as the managing editor of the Open Library of Humanities. Like the majority of our colleagues, she worked in several visiting academic positions while revising her dissertation into a monograph. The “Troublesome Monographs” session in which she presented, from what we’ve gathered from Fraser’s tweets, reflected not only the challenges of writing a first book, but the difficulty of doing so under working conditions that are indifferent to or actively hostile to research. Several contributors to the Process blog, edited by Walt Hunter, shared these sentiments, noting how the work of finishing a first book often takes place during the stretch of years when academics are at their most vulnerable: after graduate school but before a permanent academic position (that may well never materialize). Rebecca Colesworthy, now an acquisitions editor at SUNY Press, described what she calls “the not-writing” of her first book while working for a non-profit. The not-writing process bypasses reflections on craft for a blunt account of making time for scholarly work and landing borrowing privileges from university libraries as an independent scholar. Colesworthy notes the ironies of her position in “the day-to-day difficulties and demands of navigating institutions on which one necessarily depends for money, time, and resources despite one’s supposed independence as a scholar.”

Finishing any book, but especially one’s first book, while on short-term contracts or in non-academic positions while seeking academic employment is almost impossibly hard. In his Process post, Chad Bennett, now a tenured professor at the University of Texas at Austin, described his favorite scholarly books as “records of barely averted disasters,” and this is an apt description of early career scholarship today. Now, next to the books finished by the contributors to Process, imagine the books we don’t have, the ones that were never finished, the disasters that couldn’t be averted. If the “first book” is a totem of professional accomplishment and belonging, then what of the incomplete draft? Where do the outlines, the notes, the fragments of paragraphs, and the works-in-progress go?

Amateur Criticism and the Contingent Academic

When we contextualized “amateur criticism” within the casualization of academic labor, we were thinking of the flourishing of digital forums and social media platforms that owe their intellectual content in part to underemployed scholars and graduate students. Our intention was to connect scholarship to allyship. We also wanted to avoid the sort of segregation by academic class that Fraser highlights in his tweet. Yet, even while making that move, we anticipated some friction. Woolf and Zambreno bore the mantle of the amateur researcher in an act of reclamation, but most of the precarious academics whose work we read and respect did not portray themselves as amateurs. Nor did they necessarily represent themselves in ways that begged to be explained by weak theoretical principles. They focused primarily on the structural conditions that exploited their labor. Aaron Bady, who we cited in the original argument, called his work a “vocation stripped of a profession.” Jacquelyn Ardam, a longtime VAP of English who (like Bady) decided to leave the profession after her contract wasn’t renewed, responded to the special issue on Twitter “from the sidelines.” She wrote: “sure is easy to claim weakness when you have tenure or TT job. The Q of weakness looks v different from the land of the contingent.”Weak Modernisms

Ardam credited our original article for addressing academic labor, but her tweet persists in our minds. We are still figuring out how to relate amateurism as a reclaimed subject position to contingency and the structural dismantling of the profession of English. Is “amateur criticism” à la Woolf and Zambreno what Ardam is doing? Maybe not, but her Twitter feed chronicling experiences of precarious academic life retains a core element of the anger, love, pleasure, and unfiltered articulation that we associate with queer negativity and outsider art. The link between amateurism and self-publishing also seems undeniably important when we consider the publishing venues for so-called “quit lit”—Ahmed’s blog Feminist Killjoys and Ardam’s Twitter account among them. Bady published the essay we cited in “Obliterature” in Boston Review, but he also kept a Wordpress blog, ZUNGUZUNGU, with a section dedicated to the manufactured crises of higher education. Much of the evidence of institutional stonewalling and precarious employment we have cited thus far in this Print Plus response qualifies as digital ephemera (e.g. Ahmed’s blog, various tweets) and that is deliberate. If we are going to put our concept of “obliterature” into practice, then we need to disturb the boundaries between institutionally legitimated modes of publication and para-institutional modes of writing that adopt tones and language unsuitable in peer-reviewed venues.

Positioning and Publication Method

As one might expect after reading Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper’s “Publication, Power, and Patronage: On Inequality and Academic Publishing” (Critical Inquiry, 2017), or, you know, after paying even the slightest bit of attention to the way our supposedly meritocratic profession reproduces itself (when it does, which is hardly a given these days), these issues of positionality and publication venue often overlap. While formal responses accumulated on the Modernism/modernity Print Plus platform, informal conversations about the special issue unfolded elsewhere: in conference presentations, hotel bars, and coffee shops; in classrooms, workshops, and talks; through group texts, video chats, and, of course, Twitter. We might use the broad (though, we would stress, entirely ordinary in scope) variety of these modes of professional, para-professional, and un- or anti-professional responses to think, too, about their relative strengths and weaknesses as venues for critical engagement. We might attend not only to the position of the theorist but to the publication method of the theory.

In their sublime and disturbing analysis of the “mainly white room” of contemporary US poetry, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young trace how the structural conditions of higher education reproduce white privilege. They further identify what is lost (activism, anticapitalist sentiment, representation) when literary production comes solely under the auspices of colleges, universities, and private foundations at the expense of social movements, working-class communities, and communities of color. While we do not have the equivalent of Spahr and Young’s “36 spreadsheets, one with 21 tabs of data sets” pertaining to the demographic composition or employment prospects of PhD programs in English and Literature, we do feel a parallel argument can be made about the segregation of the mainly tenured and tenure-track room from the mainly precarious room. We see it at our weekly faculty meetings, in the layout of our offices, in the composition of audiences for roundtables on academic precarity—especially when the precarious are the ones speaking. The criticism coming out of the mainly precarious room is rich and varied, but also less well heard, ill-archived, and thus more subject to illegibility, dismissal, erasure, and obliteration.

The task of ladder faculty working in modernist studies today should be to listen to what is happening in the mainly precarious rooms of our field and to offer solidarity and support in the form of tangible resources whenever we can. Print Plus has done an admirable job of folding the conversations about precarity in the profession back into the visibly authorized field of the scholarly journal. Still, much of the work of writing about precarity by the precarious takes place in non-peer-reviewed sections of the platform: the “blog space” that has been home to recent essays by early-career academics such as Séan Richardson, Megan Faragher, Alys Moody, and Stephen J. Ross.[3] A notable exception is Claire Barber-Stetson’s piece on insecurity, which appeared in a peer-reviewed forum on “Modernism’s Contemporary Affects.” After spending several post-PhD years adjuncting, Barber-Stetson now works as a project manager outside of academia.

Across each of these pieces are moving descriptions of each critic’s own history of uncertain and precarious employment. Moody and Ross, the editors of a forthcoming anthology on global modernism, state in their co-authored reflection that they ultimately turned to collective thinking—and to the practice of scholarly collaboration—as the necessary and most promising way to confront both the alienating effects of academic precarity and the intellectual demands of a geographically and linguistically diverse modernist studies. For Moody and Ross, their partnership “open[ed] up more collective ways of experiencing our research lives. If one accepts, as we were forced to accept, that global modernism simply cannot be an individual project, then the subfield starts to present itself in a new light, offering a vital defense against the processes of individualization.”

Moody and Ross’s perspective on the relationship between precarious labor conditions and globalized fields of study leads us to ask how we might dilate our gaze on the Anglo-American university to include other sites of contingent labor beyond it. To take just one brief example, Ashleigh Harris and Nicklas Hållén (Uppsala University, Sweden) have begun work on the African Street Literatures Project, which studies conditions of extreme precariousness and unpredictability upon literary and cultural production in African megacities. How, they ask, does “economic, environmental, and epidemic vulnerability shape literary expression?” And what are the effects of these kinds of “extreme social pressure” on intellectual and artistic life? In their investigation of street literature, they prioritize “spoken word poetry, blog fiction, micro-fiction, street art-as-literature, street theatre, pamphlet literature, digital poetry, and graphic fiction.” When they consider works belonging to traditional literary genres like the novel, short story, and print-based poetry, it is because their authors turn to alternative styles of publishing, including self-publication.

Harris and Hållén recognize how networks of publication and distribution shape the genres they study and mint as street literatures. They further argue that such literatures, conditioned as they are by precarity, are not peripheral records but a “template for the global urban future.” Sidelines criticism, as Ardam alluded to it in her tweet, is happening in the mainly precarious room of modernist studies. The sidelines are where structural weakness meets intellectual and creative strength. Yet, given that 70% of our colleagues are working in contingency, it is wrong to imply marginality. The sidelines are the frontlines. Tweets, conference paper proposals, blog posts, “quit lit,”—who is to say that these are not the vanguard critical genres of our most fragile profession?

Gabriel Hankins: Weak Theory, Contingency, and Solidarity

This has been a terrifically invigorating special issue and debate. I’ve learned an enormous amount from the responses—about our shared investments as well as the specific questions at hand. Let me begin a response by elaborating on my own conception of weak theory, and how that connects to work in modernist studies and digital literary studies. For me, the best example of the division between weak and strong theories occurs in the sociological debate between Bruno Latour and Pierre Bourdieu, or more properly in Latour’s rereading of sociology against Bourdieu in Reassembling the Social and elsewhere. Against Bourdieu’s dream of aspiring to a “scientific truth capable of integrating the observer’s vision and the truth of the agent’s practice vision, into a perspective not known as such which is put to the test in the illusion of the absolute”—the sublime object of critical sociology—Latour positions his weak theory of assembly of the common world by actors enacting repetitive repertoires, mediating social relations, composing more general ecologies, communicating across modes of being.[1] Panoptic terms like “modernism” and “modernity” are seen as fragile watch-towers assembled and re-assembled by the interpretative actors themselves, rather than the major actors animating a political or literary history. Rather than a reduction of social life into the master narratives of capitalism, decadence, periodization, or class distinction—the exemplary case of the latter is Bourdieu’s tour-de-force reading of Sentimental Education—weak theorists emphasize the irreductive plurality of the social world and its best student, the literary text. Weak theory does thus recall and re-enact the historical concerns of pragmatist thinking, as Kate Stanley and Lisi Schoenbach add in their essential interventions here. It must do so without losing the capacity to generalize, abstract, and re-assemble the various totalizations we urgently need—the Anthropocene, the commons, strong notions of ecological and political thinking pointed to by Tim Wientzen, Stephen Ross, and others.

Stephen Ross points out that few of us think of ourselves as operating according to “strong theory,” a reasonable objection, though not if we consider modernist periodization itself a strong form of literary-historical thinking. Within digital literary studies, however, strong hermeneutic modes are fairly common: Franco Moretti’s work on maps and graphs was always underpinned by a strong Marxist history of literary generations and economic refractions, as most recently in the figure of “the Bourgeois,” and the acceptance of his digital work was of course partly predicated on that inheritance of Marxist literary critique. The Stanford Litlab continues to do productive work under the neo-Bourdieusian rubric of the “literary field,” and Andrew Goldstone employs Bourdieu as an active part of his forthcoming history of the “system of popular fiction genres” since 1890. A good deal of the most impressive work in “cultural analytics” attempts to generalize over enormous stretches of literary terrain—a history of the changing prominence of gender characterization in fiction that stretches from the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the twenty-first century, for example.[2] But that extensive reach over genres and periods entails its own strong theories of literary-historical pliability and thus enacts its own strong theory of what, for example, constitutes “gender division” in texts separated by centuries. Strong literary-historical narratives are not just imposed by the imprimatur of major theorists, but are also imposed by the scope of our hermeneutic tools, even and especially tools that can appear merely ready-to-hand—the database, the corpus, the notion of information itself, as Aaron Jaffe and Michael Miller point out. Conceiving of much of the work we do in digital modernist studies as operating within a weak program of loose ties, contingent associations, and ludic recreations, on the lines suggested by Wai Chee Dimock, thus has the potential to productively demarcate a field of ongoing work committed to strategic non-commitment, work that refuses the seductive mastery of grand narratives, sovereign fields, master keywords, and frictionless search and replace.

Thinking through that field of work is the purpose of my essay, a purpose seemingly missed by Jaffe and Miller. Showing that “weak theoretical accounts of modernism essentially mean that modernism—and so, too, theory—must first be processed into general properties of informatic ‘aboutness’ or metadata” is pretty much the opposite of my actual argument, for example, a summary that misunderstands the concept and shows no interest in the underlying debate. But Jaffe and Miller do bring some essential points of criticism to the fore. The figure of the “network,” commonly invoked in this issue and elsewhere in the debate, is indeed a vexed, potentially over-extended metaphor, as Patrick Jagoda shows in his Network Aesthetics (2016); the Latourian notion of (Deleuzian) actor-networks doesn’t mean at all what “network” means in internet culture, and that in turn is quite distinct from sociological notions of networks of weak ties. Jaffe and Miller are right to say that the network is not some “value-neutral preserve” or easily adaptable master-figure in contemporary culture. Weak networks are of course the particular preserve of the powerful and of elite coteries, now and for the modernists themselves.

As for other responses to the essay, I very much appreciate Katherine Fusco’s feminist reframing of many of the “weak theoretical” projects as attentive to “subjectivities at risk of being erased in more totalizing methods,” thinking here of work by Shawna Ross, Lauren Klein, and the enormous, often forgotten digital archives of recovery work in African-American literary history. Margaret Konkol’s claims for a weakly ecological mode of reading seem exactly right, and pair very well with Tim Wientzen’s parallel concern with ecological totalities, good and bad. I would agree with Wientzen’s and Elizabeth Sheehan’s assessment of “weak theory” as arising from the metacritical debates over the hermeneutics of suspicion, but it needs to be reemphasized, yet again, that rethinking the standard moves of suspicious reading does not entail abandoning the legacies and resources of critique (as Paul Saint-Amour notes in his introduction to the special issue). To position “weak theory” against all critique, or against political reading as such, is to rehearse again the bad-faith misreading of which strong theory is (often unjustly) accused.

The BAMS group, and its representatives Polly Hember, Suzanne Hobson, Gareth Mills, and Jeff Wallace, raise a series of fundamental questions about weak theory and digital methods that deserve sustained thought and attention. Only part of that thought is possible here, but more will go into parallel work on a Digital Literary Studies book series that takes up exactly these questions. Digital projects do often involve public audiences, all to the good, but how to take up alternative or defamiliarizing geographic modes for the general audience? That’s an excellent and productive question that (for example) the Decolonial Atlas project has taken up. The BAMS researchers are right to note that we can and do consider “weak” claims about letters the strongest kind of evidence, but only if the claims themselves are limited and provisional. The questions as to the rhetoric of “network” are also precisely right, here, and I would echo and extend them; indeed, reading and comparing the work itself alongside its visual reproductions should always be required, and especially for digital projects.

Thinking through the responses of postgraduate researchers should remind us of a final essential aspect of the “steady weakening of [our] key term, modernism”: the weakening in the number of academic jobs and the parallel increase in contingency, an area of this debate taken up by Pamela Thurschwell and Fusco, as well as by Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir in their excellent response here. While I agree with Paul Saint-Amour that the weakening of our key term has paradoxically led to a strong field, we should not forget that the conjunctive logic of a weak modernism is in large part a product of the endlessly disconjunctive demands of the academic “market”: be a modernist and an ecocritic, cover the Anglophone twentieth century and also specialize, do global history through a specific figure and archive. These endless demands certainly lead to a weakness in the field, as do fundamental shifts in the locations and security of academic work. The contingency and fragility of our theoretical assemblies cannot be dissociated from the contingency and fragility of our lives and the lives of our co-workers. But as Vadde and Micir note, much of the profession and its responses lies outside formal peer review, in the form of the “digital ephemera” they theorize as a distinctive weak form. The professional importance of such contingent ephemera is one of the primary reasons that we are all digital modernists now; thinking through the consequences of that shift lies ahead as an essential task for a weak theory of the field.

Wai Chee Dimock: Not Paralyzed

Scott Herring reminds us that weak modernism has always been there, impossible to miss once we get used to its everyday ordinariness. Even Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, unabashedly dedicated to literary heavyweights, shows that there comes a time when those heavyweights are considerably less: Wyndham Lewis “sweeter after his blindness”; a “dwindling Eliot” with “slack lungs” and memory only “for remote things”; and William Carlos Williams, laid low by strokes, speaking haltingly while turning “an emerging baby’s head no longer his hand’s to command.”[1]

These late-life disabilities suggest that aging is above all a leveling force: it puts literary greats on the same footing as common mortals, highlighting in both an asymmetry between volition and execution, between the narrow scope of agency and the infinite potential for loss. Kathleen Woodward has long urged us to integrate aging into our working definition of modernism.[2] There’s no better time than now, when the humanities as a whole are seen as superannuated, with no viable future, and when a million species, recently reported as going extinct within the next few years, apparently have no future either.[3] What does it mean to be almost obsolete: as an individual, a discipline, or a species? What course of action is left when time seems to have run out, no longer a living home to inhabit? Modernism isn’t primarily or obviously about the future, but it wouldn’t be what it is without some sense of what is to come. At this moment, it is especially hard to ignore the stark prospects haunting the field, as they haunt our species and every other species.

Weak theory is less a hermeneutic than a performative under the circumstances. The starting point here is precarity (Melanie Micir, Aarthi Vadde), and the inability of theory, that once-sovereign power, to propose a non-sovereign course, recognizing those inexorable time limits and making them our genetic condition. To go forward at all, trial-and-error experiments become necessary in the classroom, the university (Elizabeth Sheehan), and the public arena as we venture forth, “crossing the street” (Madelyn Detloff) literally and metaphorically, looking for some common ground that might give us, if not quite a lifeline to the future, then at least some input into what lies ahead.

Climate Pragmatism

Acting as best we can, and coming up short as a matter of course, weak theory finds its closest kin in pragmatism, that scrubby non-theory of William James and John Dewey, often found wanting, and not deterred by that fact. Remarks by Holly Laird, Lisi Schoenbach, and Kate Stanley are especially helpful here. But pragmatism in the twenty-first century also faces a new set of constraints. Laboring under a nonhuman timeline—the timeline imposed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases—it has to be a climate pragmatism, speaking to the exigencies of the Anthropocene, owning up to all the ways we have imperiled our home, and not looking away from the possibility that redress might not happen soon enough, might not be able to reverse the accelerating chain of events and guarantee us a future.

Lacking that guarantee, climate pragmatism isn’t quite the “strong ecology” Tim Wientzen proposes. It begins with observable phenomena not as an explained totality but as an archive of disabling effects, empirically documented in humans and nonhumans. Empirical, and therefore inconclusive, climate pragmatism offers no confident projections; it has no ability to enforce conduct, to carve policy in stone. Its practical advocacies can appear “onerous” and therefore optional, which, Dewey says, is usually the case with “practical doing and making,” the more so here “because of the uncertainty which attends it.”[4] Such a weak method, subject to the risks of misinformation, misdiagnosis, mismatch between means and ends, “can never attain more than a precarious probability,” Dewey concedes (“Escape From Peril,” 6). And yet, weak as it is, nothing but “skin and bone,” it tries nonetheless to “mould” itself “upon the particular shape of this particular world’s carcass,” James says, stretching its capabilities as best it can, as if some kind of future were still a live option, still up to it to decide.[5]

Subjunctive Experiment

Climate pragmatism is, in this sense, a shorthand for a more general form of open-eyed quixotism, a subjunctive experiment persisting against the contradictions of “as if,” against the strong likelihood of things being otherwise (Grace Lavery and Paul Saint-Amour, Katherine Fusco). Chastened but not deterred by the “noise of facts,” it gives us a counterfactual agency, a wager with time and against time to save a world probably beyond saving at this point (James, “The Present Dilemma,” 21). Not fully justified in its procedures, yet pressing forward all the same, climate pragmatism is fact-based but not outcome-obsessed. It enables those who don’t have much time left to spend it without reservation and without panic, as if an infinite future were still at their disposal. William Carlos Williams is a case in point:

Up at dawn, he typed, letter by letter, the left hand guiding and letting fall the right over an electrified keyboard. His eyes followed a line of type with ease but had trouble finding the start of the next line; the three-step indentation he came to favor was in part a way of making a page he could reread. (Kenner, The Pound Era, 541)

The inordinate lengths gone to by this handicapped poet to do what is done without a thought by others tell us a great deal about what kind of poet he has been all along. After finishing Paterson 5, Williams would begin again right away, his all-too-proximate end not stopping him from coming up with these lines for a new book that even he couldn’t have hoped to finish:

Casually with all the art of domestic

husbandry or the kitchen shelf

a royal bluecurving

on itself to make a simple flour design

to decorate my bedroom wall[6]

The weak modernism lavishing time on this homemade and half-baked poetry, as if it were an end in itself, is the same modernism that has always lavished time on tasks impossibly difficult and outcome-uncertain. From the Sanskrit that Eliot tried to master in “The Waste Land” to the Chinese dictionary that Pound took with him to the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa, to the multilingual note-taking that went into the making of Finnegans Wake, modernism has always acted as if the time spent were itself the point. Merely trying can pass for an acceptable outcome when the indicative is loosened by the subjunctive. Pragmatism is “generative rather than right (though it might also be right)” (Benjamin Kahan).[7]

So it’s not surprising that those upfront about their uncertain future would nonetheless not give up, as if the large-scale harms of the Anthropocene could have reparative spinoffs, releasing dormant causalities and multiplying peripheral networks (Susan Stanford Friedman, Gabriel Hankins, Margaret Konkol, Omri Moses, Stephen Ross). Acting under such assumptions is of course to run the risk of bad faith. And yet, as Cliff Mak points out, risks admitted to “are not only able to meet bad faith on its own terms and sublate it into a form of good faith practice but also able to do so simply by avowing their own limitations.” Open-eyed quixotism is not a heinous lie to ourselves and others. It is an experiment in non-paralysis, a necessary subjunctive on behalf of the planet, resting on shaky hopes and remaining hopeful on those grounds.

Modernism has always abounded with such experiments. The intersectional race+gender method set forth by Cyraina Johnson-Rouiller is a good example. The new departure signaled by the “Indigenous Modernisms” panel at the 2018 MSA is another. Both speak to the subjunctive agency of those acting as if their fate were not a foregone conclusion, and emerging once again, at this critical moment, reaching toward a future that they hope, even now, might still be marginally open to input, as it was marginally open to input in the past.

Assisted Survival

In a recent PMLA column (“Collateral Resilience”), I point to the resurgence of indigenous languages as marking an unexpected upturn in the humanities, a subjunctive agency exercised by those reputedly close to extinction, and offering key lessons in adapting, collaborating, rebounding.[8] The climate pragmatism outlined here (taken from my forthcoming book, Weak Planet) is very much part of that argument. In that spirit I’d like to add a few paragraphs from the Afterword, beginning with Luther Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux (1928), an indigenous autobiography not often admitted into the precincts of modernism, but showing us just what marginal possibility could do when its weak input into the future is recognized—as not more but also not less than what it sets out to be.

A writer, orator, and eventual leader of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Standing Bear worked for the Wanamaker Department Store while a student at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He had a chance to see Sitting Bull in a Philadelphia theater when, for four months in 1885, the legendary Lakota chief toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show:

On the stage sat four Indian men, one of whom was Sitting Bull. There were two women and two children with them. A white man came on stage and introduced Sitting Bull as the man who had killed General Custer (which, of course, was absolutely false). Sitting Bull arose and addressed the audience in the Sioux tongue, as he did not speak nor understand English. He said, “My friends, white people, we Indians are on our way to Washington to see the Grandfather, or President of the United States. I see so many white people and what they are doing, that it makes me glad to know that some day my children will be educated also. There is no use fighting any longer. The buffalo are all gone, as well as the rest of the game. Now I am going to shake the hand of the Great Father at Washington, and I am going to tell him all these things.” Then Sitting Bull sat down. He never even mentioned Custer’s name.[9]

Sitting Bull, celebrated for his war prowess since he was fourteen, was less military-minded in his last decades. Though popularly credited with the destruction of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, he was in fact not present, the fighting being done by his nephew White Bull and the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. When the US army retaliated with intensified attacks and systematic destruction of the buffalo, Sitting Bull went into exile in Canada for four years. He surrendered to the US government in July 1881, and was held prisoner for two years before being assigned to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. In 1890 he was killed during a scuffle with the Reservation police.

1885 marked a special point of vulnerability for Sitting Bull. As part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he was an exhibit in a vast entertainment industry. And he had a further disadvantage. Unable to speak English, he was at the mercy of the fabrications of the white stage manager, able to get his story across to non-Lakota-speakers only if someone fluent in both languages happened to be around.

That linguistic disability gives Sitting Bull a far more interesting future than if he had been able to speak English. There’s no better example of non-paralysis than this aging warrior, hemmed in by circumstances, his exploits told second hand, but coming back with the help of others: an emblem of resilient co-dependence and assisted survival. Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux, keeping Sitting Bull’s memory alive when it was first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1928, was reissued by the University of Nebraska Press in 1975, and reissued again in 2006, as a Bison Books edition, with a new introduction by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Two new books on Sitting Bull himself—focusing specifically on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—came out in 2016 and 2017.[10] Above all, the Lakota language, apparently headed for oblivion in the late nineteenth century, is showing signs of revival, and on the very Standing Rock reservation where Sitting Bull was killed.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe made history when, for almost three years, it held up the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, making Native Climate action headline news around the world. Even though the Trump administration eventually prevailed, the tribe continues to monitor oil leaks, while persisting in its opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline, and gearing up for a new fight, against the innocuously named Line 3.[11] Hundreds of reporters have gone to the Standing Rock Reservation, but one of them, Patrick Cox, was recently there for a different reason: to write a story about the language classes at the Lakota Summer Institute, and the making of a new Lakota grammar with the help of a Czech linguist.

The first Lakota grammar was created in 1902 by Father Eugene Beuchel, a Jesuit missionary untrained in phonetics. Tribal elders have long been unhappy with it, finding that many of the sounds unique to Lakota are lost in the written form. Recently an ally showed up in the form of Jan Ullrich who, growing up in Czechoslovakia under the Soviet Union, “sympathized with other people who had a history of being colonized.”[12] Ullrich began learning Lakota from a dictionary found in a Prague library. He is now in a position to advise the tribes on all aspects of grammar, including pronunciation, spelling, and neologisms. Meanwhile, Sitting Bull College, a public college serving the Standing Rock Sioux community, has received a $100,000 NEH grant for a “Lakota-Dakota Language Project,” making video as well as audio recordings of native speakers to pass on to a new generation.

The money will run out in three years. And, all these efforts notwithstanding, the number of Lakota speakers will no doubt continue to decline for many years to come. Still, the grammar and the recordings and the language classes are not trivial. Experiments in non-paralysis, they turn Sitting Bull’s linguistic disability into a lifeline to the future—a climate activism he couldn’t have foreseen, but whose collateral effects he would have applauded. Weak but not without help from others, defeated again and again but so far uneliminated from the field, this subjunctive experiment might turn out to be coextensive with the planet itself, its hoped-for future marginally but meaningfully within the realm of possibility.

Sara Crangle: Why I Am So Weak


            Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;

            Not untwist–– slack they may be–– these last strands of man

            In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

            Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.[1]

This desperation is as powerful as Baudelaire’s boredom is generative. Dashed hope is mastered: I can anticipate the dawn, Hopkins’s speaker tells us, but as it arrives with the sonnet’s conclusion, there is little succor: “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” Reading this sonnet aloud for the first time, my voice developed a hairline crack shortly after the turn, then broke fulsomely, foundationally, at the aside that reveals and demands, that all too human, “(my God)!” Before my puzzled audience, lapping and lapped by strength.


Sometimes, I play my easiest waltz very quickly on the piano, as if I were spinning and the keyboard were turning around me. And a passage where there is a high note, I repeat for hours, I end up striking just one single chord, that one high note on and on, until my hand is burning. It’s like the sound of shattering crystal, it is sharp, sharp and this teaches me extraordinary things. It penetrates my ear like a spiral feather, a diamond plume, a velvet brush. . . . Oh, and there is the pain of satin. I run my hands along my satin bedspread, and . . . you understand, one has small desires, little abrasions at the tips of the fingers, so my whole body shivers, it hurts so much to touch the soft fabric.[2]

Evidently, records still exist of Marguerite Eymery’s 1884 petition to the Parisian police to wear men’s clothing in public; permission was denied, and some say she acquiesced, others that she continued dandifying herself.[3] Had Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío lived to see her as-yet-untranslated tract, Why I am not a Feminist (1928), he might have been less anxious about this “enigmatic dominatrix,” this “adorable and fearsome god-daughter of Lilith.”[4] Where Darío reveres the “burning, bloody coals of the ‘divine Marquis,’” he is discomfited by and attracted to this perverse “Madame Baudelaire” whose female characters command their men, even as their hands burn with a thousand pleasurably self-inflicted cuts (“Rachilde,” 425). A woman who courts and inflicts pain, Rachilde takes us to “a most hard and unknown country—unnatural, forbidden, perilous.” She is, for Darío, a proper demon: “Mme. Antichrist” (429).[5]


His starched collars and got-up shirt fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush, and said modestly, “I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.”[6]

It may be precisely because Marlowe is a bloody racist, a bloody misogynist, and a bloody homophobe that this passage jars and intrigues. Each time I read Heart of Darkness, I am more convinced that this unnamed African woman’s resistance is the book’s most sustained, unambiguous oppositional act. The might wielded to overcome her “‘distaste’” proves inseparable from a blush as feminine as the chief accountant’s hair, so carefully “parted, brushed, oiled,” and the “green-lined parasol held”—somatic satire at the ready—“in a big white hand” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 23). Disciple to a “weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly,” Marlowe’s miraculous “vision” is a white man bathed in the colour of greed, of life on rapacious overdrive, as were the brutally over-worked, dying Africans Marlowe encountered only moments before “in the greenish gloom” of a ravine (21–22).

Surveying the accountant’s stiff, spotless clothing, Marlowe marvels: “That’s backbone” (24). But the accountant’s posture is a prosthesis forged from his opponent’s begrudging mastery of the arts of starch and bleach. And her rebellion leaves its ineradicable mark on his psyche, its glancing, but memorable, pink blaze upon his cheek.


[The dadaist] no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of view, and yet he is still so convinced of the unity of all beings, of the totality of all things, that he suffers from the dissonances to the point of self-disintegration.[7]

Against the sanctioned political bloodbaths of the era, the dadaist “cultivates the curiosity of one who feels joy even at the most questionable forms of rebellion.” Always, always, the nineteenth century nips at the dadaist’s heels: “I do not know if we will go beyond Wilde and Baudelaire in spite of all our efforts. . . . There is a danger that only our mistakes are new” (66).

To be this particular dadaist is to be plucked from the brink of penury and suicide by Emmy Hennings’s resourcefulness; is to be carried from the stage in a cone of sweat-soaked cardboard; is to “let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat miaows. . . . to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands.” “The word, gentleman, is a public concern of the first importance” (21). (And: the word “gentleman” is a public concern of the first importance.) The irrational word is messiah, even as “harmony and equilibrium” are dismissed as “sentimental weaknesses” (68). Pigeon-toed, this paradox swaggers through Dada spectacle, its celebration of “both buffoonery and a requiem mass” (56).


Can you feel the beauty for me.

In that case bathe me.

How exasperating.

There was plenty of time for effort.

Plenty of time.

I can feel the beauty.

When I speak of it.

Baby not I promise you.

Leave it to me.

I congratulate.

And say.

Can I say yes.

Can I feel the beauty.

What is it.

In the way of exclaiming.[8]

What is beautiful? Backgrounds, objects, a feather, the “southern region in a woman” (91). What does beauty do? Weeps, blushes, enrages, pronounces, measures, thinks, pleases, amazes, charms, satisfies, dissatisfies; it is wishful, visible, aural, and above all palpable: “I feel the beauty integrally” (89). “See me.” demands the penultimate line. “Can you be a candidate.” it asserts interrogatively by way of closure. Anyone can feel this beauty, this sustaining intimacy interspersed with irritation, errands, others, anxious appeals for reassurance, with affects prosaic and monumental, with the close, humid air of a couple spooned or swooned.

When did I move from a peripatetic blind fury to the prostrations of levity, tenderness, reverence? No doubt I was still seething whilst reading this line: “Very strongly may be sincerely fainting.” [9] Gertrude Stein loves a prophecy.


What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.[10]

Beneath the Universe, these “u’s” stay small, extending just a bit more with each passing word. An archive of diminution grows.


“I am willing to forgo the duel at once on one condition. Otherwise it must go on!” he barked fiercely. “If Herr Soltyk will give me a kiss I will forgo the duel!”

He smiled archly and expectantly[.][11]

This is Otto Kreisler’s second unorthodox request. The first? “‘I want a jujube. Ask Herr Solytk! Tell him not to keep them all to himself!’” (Lewis, Tarr, 250-51). Fellow Principal Soltyk is not eating sweets, but oxide of bromium tablets. Early in the morning, both men stand on “waste land” outside Paris, loaded weapons and Seconds at the ready (246). Lewis revels in this abysmal play at chivalry, conferring upon his characters a wayward Baudelairean genius: the child drunk on petulance, rather than originality; the aspirant convalescent seeing the world anew and straining not to vomit. Wyndham Lewis’s palpable, unwitting scopophilia—how Lewis loves to watch the homosocial scenes he authors—adds to the hilarity.

In 1931, Lewis castigates his fellow Caucasians: “When, sir, when, madam, are you going to stop playing? . . . When, oh when do you propose to put away childish things then – for you are, in the post-war world of Debt and Dole, no longer in the position of a spoilt-child . . . no longer a White Overlord or anything jolly of that sort at all”?[12] His solution? A renewed “race-consciousness on the part of all White Western Peoples” (Lewis, Hitler, 123). Visiting Berlin, an entranced Lewis recounts watching Goebbels and Göring address a “gigantic assembly of twenty thousand people” united by “the physical pressure of one immense, indignant thought”: “to recapture their freedom at whatever cost,” to liberate themselves from “the Terroristic . . . stream of taxation” and “monopolies of the Social-democratic” (10–11).

As Kreisler frets before accidentally killing Soltyk: “possibilities were weakened by the nearness of Certainty” (Lewis, Tarr, 249).


A Negro girl strolls past the corner lounger. Her whole body panging and posing. A slight shoulder movement that calls attention to her bust, that is all of a dare. A hippy undulation below the waist that is a sheaf of promises tied with conscious power. She is acting out ‘I’m a darned sweet woman and you know it.’[13]

Brilliantly, a footnote after “panging” reads: “From ‘pang.’” “Frequently the Negro,” Zora Neale Hurston writes, “must add action to make [words] do”; verbing the noun is listed as one means of overcoming those bleak, “stark, trimmed phrases of the Occident” (“Characteristics,” 24–25). Author, anthropologist, Hurston articulates the lived, flirtatious gesture toward the exalted, unseen, abject knot at the heart of this embodied bouquet, this presumed weakness that knows its own strength.


How deny to dreams their usual privilege

of bearing me again in their carriage

through countless landscapes

softly moonlit or hideous with apparitions

where the bald skull scowls an eternal grimace

and petals sport under the glassy dew?

Oblivion suavely attunes its chords

and everything is solemn spectacle

of simultaneous events

and rose-lilac and blue-violet

clothe my naked

frail and ingenuous soul.[14]

Magda Portal knows decadent spleen and languor, patronizes Buenos Aires, for instance, as a “Little city without artifices!”[15] What’s more, Portal frequently echoes Jude’s infamous, bleak refrain, as in: “yet no one ever     a r r i v e s.”[16]

Portal withstood chastisement from fellow members of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance who considered lamentation, and lyricizing full stop, luxuries that would make nothing happen. Recognizing “the root entangling [her] in stony ground,” Portal persisted in art as she did in politics. The world is “brute fact,” the self may well be “wheeling inexorably toward nothingness.” But as Portal’s enervated, ennobled speaker tells us at the end of “Dream”: “That is why / when the violent poppy of the night opens / I go in.”



Just as it is certain that no leaf is ever exactly the same as any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by dropping these individual differences arbitrarily, by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another, so that the concept then gives rise to the notion that something other than leaves exists in nature, something which would be “leaf,” a primal form, say, from which all leaves were woven, drawn, delineated, dyed, curled, painted—but by a clumsy pair of hands, so that no single example turned out to be a faithful, correct, and reliable copy of the primal form.[17]


I would rediscover the secret of great communications and of great combustions. I would say storm. I would say river. I would say tornado. I would say leaf, I would say tree. I would be soaked by all the rains, moistened by all the dews. Like frantic blood over the slow stream of the eye, I would roll words as crazy horses as fresh children as bloodclots as curfew as vestiges of temples as gems deep enough to discourage miners. Whoever would not understand me would not understand the roaring of the tiger either.[18]


The real world unattainable, unprovable, unpromisable, but the mere thought of it a consolation, an obligation, an imperative. . . . The real world—unattainable? At any rate unattained. And since unattained also unknown. Hence no consolation, redemption, obligation either: what could something unknown oblige us to do?[19]


A civilisation that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilisation.[20]

Notes for Grace Lavery and Paul K. Saint-Amour

[1] See Vincent Sherry, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[2] Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 106.

[3] See Lisi Schoenbach, Pragmatic Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[4] “It is therefore another great achievement of modern English political economy to have declared rent of land to be the difference in the interest yielded by the worst and the best land under cultivation; to have [exposed] the landowner's romantic illusions—his alleged social importance and the identity of his interest with the interest of society, a view still maintained by Adam Smith after the Physiocrats; and to [have] anticipated and prepared the movement of the real world which will transform the landowner into an ordinary, prosaic capitalist, and thus simplify and sharpen the contradiction [between capital and labour] and. hasten its resolution.” Karl Marx, “Antithesis of Labor and Capital: Landed Property and Capital,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan.

[5] Lauren Berlant, “Conversation: Lauren Berlant with Dana Luciano” (January 13, 2013).

[6] William James, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” appendix to Pragmatism: The Works of William James (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 268.

[7] Namwali Serpell describes these words as productive of a kind of readerly “agency”; see the opening paragraphs of her Seven Modes of Uncertainty, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1–6.

[8] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 25–29.

[9] See Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, ed., “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity,” special issue of Differences 26, no. 1 (2015); and Johanna Hedva, “Sick Woman Theory,” in Mask Magazine.

[10] See especially Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

[11] Michel Foucault, preface to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xi–xiv, xiii.

[12] In the black bloc/antifa action against UC Berkeley on February 1, 2017, designed to prevent the fascist agitator Milo Yiannopoulos from addressing a group of right wing militants, the burning of a lighting fixture was a quick, organized, and strikingly minimalist tactic designed to do enough damage to public property to ensure the event’s cancelation, without endangering life. News reports that depicted the events as a “riot” or “violent” baffled those of us who were there, for whom the action more resembled a scene change in a studio theater—complex, but well-rehearsed and minimally fussy.

Notes for Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir

As co-authors, we have elected to alternate the order of our names rather than use alphabetical order. This is due to the fact that search engines and indexes periodically erase the latter author’s name from search results. We contributed equally to this response and to the original article, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–49.

[1] According to the American Association of University Professors, full-time and part-time non-tenure-track appointments now make up over 70% of all higher education instruction in the United States, and over half of all faculty appointments are categorized as part-time (regardless of course load). See “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty Positions.”

[2] Jacquelyn Ardam, Alix Beeston, Rebecca Colesworthy, and Michelle Rada, “The Future of Modernist Studies in the Age of Precarity” Roundtable Proposal for MSA-Toronto, 2019. The roundtable will also feature Pardis Dabashi, Séan Richardson, and Debra Rae Cohen. Ardam unfortunately will no longer be speaking. Thank you to Alix Beeston for sharing this proposal with us.

[3] It should be noted that most conversations about the profession, unrestricted to precarity, take place in the blog space of Print Plus. Modernism/modernity does often publish scholarship by precarious academics in modernist studies; however, the work of communicating the conditions of contingent labor remains somewhat like writing a book review.  It is an act of service to the field, but it won’t add much to your promotion file.

Notes for Gabriel Hankins

[1] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 155.

[2] See Ted Underwood, David Bamman, and Sabrina Lee, “The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, July 20, 2018.

Notes for Wai Chee Dimock

[1] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 551, 541.

[2] Kathleen Woodward, At Last, The Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980).

[3] Stephen Leahy, “One Million Species at Risk of Extinction,” National Geographic May 6, 2109.

[4] John Dewey, “Escape from Peril,” The Later Works, 1925-1953. Volume 4: 1929, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 4, 17, 5–6.

[5] William James, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” in Pragmatism and Other Essays (New York: Washington Square Books, 1963), 21.

[6] Williams Carlos Williams, Paterson (Alexandria, VA : Chadwyck-Healey, 1998), 238.

[7] Benjamin Kahan, “Volitional Etiologies: Toward a Weak Theory of Etiology,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 551–68, 553.

[8] Wai Chee Dimock, “Collateral Resilience,” PMLA 134 (2019): 1–13.

[9] Luther Standing Bear, My People the Sioux, ed. E. A. Brininstool (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), 185.

[10] See Deanne Stillman, Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017); and Eric Vuillard, Sorrow of the Earth: Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, and the Tragedy of Show Business (London: Pushkin Press, 2016).

[11] On November 8, 2018, Judge Brian Morris of the District Court of Montana blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline by ordering the US State Department to conduct a supplemental environmental impact review.

[12] Patrick Cox, “The Standing Rock Sioux are also fighting for their Language,” PRI, November 18, 2016.

Notes for Sara Crangle

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Carrion Comfort,” in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Robert Bridges, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), 61­–62.

[2] Rachilde, “Pleasure” [first performed 1896], in Madame La Mort and Other Plays (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 81–92, 87.

[3] Frazer Lively, “Introduction,” in Madame La Mort and Other Plays, 3–54, 8.

[4] Rubén Darío, “Rachilde,” in Los Raros (The Misfits), ed. Ilan Stavans, trans. Andrew Hurley et al. (1896; London: Penguin Books, 2005), 424–29, 429.

[5] She is, historically, the sartorial and aesthetic precursor to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, or she of the “lusting palate” who was continually arrested for her outlandish garb (“A Dozen Cocktails—Please,” in Bodysweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. ed. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011], 48–49).

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899; London: Vintage Books, 2007), 24.

[7] Hugo Ball, Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary, trans. and ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes (1927; New York: Viking Press, 1974), 66.

[8] Gertrude Stein, “I Can Feel the Beauty” [1917], Painted Lace: and Other Pieces [1914-1937], Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein, Volume 5 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955), 84–93.

[9] Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914; Los Angeles, CA: Sun and Moon Press, 1991), 13.

[10] James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Declan Kiberd (1922; London: Penguin, 2000), 819.

[11] Wyndham Lewis, Tarr (1918/1928; London: Calder and Boyars, 1968).

[12] Wyndham Lewis, Hitler (London: Chatto and Windus, 1931), 120–21.

[13] Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in Negro: An Anthology, ed. Nancy Cunard, ed. and abridged by Hugh Ford (1934; New York: Continuum, 2002), 24–47, 24.

[14] Magda Portal, “Dream,” in Peruvian Rebel: The World of Magda Portal, ed. and trans. Kathleen Weaver (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009), 241.

[15] Magda Portal, “A Sunday Anywhere,” in Peruvian Rebel, 243-45.

[16] Magda Portal, “Song 5,” in Peruvian Rebel, 221–23. “But nobody did come, because nobody does”: Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, ed. C. H. Sisson (1896; London: Penguin Books, 1985), 72.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” trans. Ronald Spiers, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd ed, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: Norton, 2010), 764–74, 767.

[18] Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, trans. Mireille Rosello with Annie Pritchard (1956; Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1995), 87.

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, ed. and trans. Duncan Large (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 20.

[20] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (1955; New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 9.