Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part I
Volume 3, Cycle 4
As its guest editor, Paul K. Saint-Amour, anticipated, the recent special issue on Weak Theory has occasioned a great deal of discussion. We’re excited to be able to bring to you the first helping of what we expect will be a multi-course meal of responses to the issue, including rebuttals, explications, parallels, applications, and the identification of weakness in surprising places.
Madelyn Detloff: On Going . . . Ongoing . . . Going On
I am a fan of “weak theory,” as Paul Saint-Amour has described the constellation of engagements and scholarly endeavors that he brings together in his introduction to the “Weak Theory” special issue of Modernism/modernity. I myself am agnostic about using the term “weak” to describe the disparate approaches that are gathered there under the banner of “weak theory,” but that is a semantic preference attuned to what I want to emphasize, not an objection to the term. I am not ashamed of the taint that accompanies what Saint-Amour calls “reclaiming a term of derogation,” a move akin to the resignifying work of “crip” or “queer” in crip and queer theory respectively. Rather I prefer to focus less on whether a method is considered weak or strong, and more on whether any particular system of thought is relatively open or relatively closed. “Weak theory” is promising insofar as it tends to be open to contingency (even error) and therefore prone to untidiness, or “mess” in the sense articulated by Martin Manalansan’s “The Stuff of Archives.”
Lest my remarks here be construed as critique when I have already declared myself a fan, let me be clear that I am in agreement with Saint-Amour when he asserts that “[w]hat these theorists of weakness, Sedgwick included, share is not a vehement, dialectical negation of either strength or critique but an interest in the work accomplished by the proximate, the provisional, and the probabilistic” (440). The provisional and probabilistic may seem less urgent and cutting edge than the definitive and inescapable, but they have the merit of being open to going on, that is to be part of an ongoing engagement with culture as it evolves in ways we can’t always predict. I find that ongoing-ness both necessary and useful, if sometimes exhausting and thankless.
Below I take the rhetorical risk of the very sort of “caricature” of “strong theory” Saint-Amour decries, so let me admit upfront that my characterizations here are imperfect and overly generalized—attending to what I see as the aspirations and approximations of closed theoretical approaches, but not venturing anything so assured as a diagnosis (444). Frankly, whether a system of thought is open or closed depends on the uses to which it is put by the practitioner. That said, I find it helpful to make distinctions between closed systems, which tend to be neat (striving for theoretical purity) even when intricate, and open systems that embrace or at least tolerate a certain amount of “mess.” By purity I don’t mean zealotry (although I’ve come across my fair share of theoretical zealots in my day), but rather a desire for precision that does not quite match up to life in everyday meatspace. This drive for precision manifests itself in the many clarifying moves those of us who teach some form of theory regularly make (e.g., by “name of the father” Jacques Lacan doesn’t really mean your dad; or, for Louis Althusser “ideology” means Y; or “performativity,” for Judith Butler, does not entail P but rather Z).
Closed theories are clean because they tidy up the messy details that don’t fit neatly into the logic of their systems by incorporating or renouncing them. Open systems are more forgiving of the gunk of living that often messes up the smooth running of the system. Vacuums are devoid of the everyday detritus that causes gunk, but they can’t sustain life. Life is messy and complex—a truism, but one that bears repeating in an era of tweets and sound bites that flatten nuance and amplify contradiction. As Virginia Woolf, a paradigmatic “weak theorist,” noted in “The Mark on the Wall,” a paean to inconclusiveness, “Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair!” 
In contrast to Woolf’s messy-haired juggernaut, who is unceremoniously shot out the doors of a subway train somewhere along her journey, W.B. Yeats’s carefully mapped cones and gyres of history are the paradigmatic closed hermeneutic system. The train of history runs unfailingly according to theosophical schedule for Yeats. Even violent revolution is part of its recurring pattern of chaos and order. Granted, Yeats’s Vision is as extreme as it is esoteric, but the point is that as a closed hermeneutic system, it permits no outliers.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls such closed hermeneutic systems which depend upon conceptual dualisms (chaos/order, absence/presence, latent/manifest), “conceptual feedback loops” that are “self-reinforcing” and “insoluble.” The self-reinforcing nature of such systems perhaps explains the understandable wariness proponents of “weak theory” have of crossing over to the paradoxical position of “strong” weak theory. Saint-Amour advises vigilance regarding weak theory, which can abet a strong, even strong-arming, system through its diffusion:
It would be a terrible irony—and, worse, both intellectually and ethically noxious—if a field expansion made possible by a certain weakness-in-theory were to result in a homogenizing triumphalism fed by the annexation of others’ intellectual resources, spaces, voices, and rights-of-way. Even as scholars of modernism seek, with good reason, to make the field more inclusive, we need to be vigilant lest inclusivity become a byword for instrumentalizing the work or presence of others” (453).
In other words, neither weakness nor strength inevitably arrives at ethical outcomes.
Whose Streets? The Contingency of Paranoia
“Paranoid reading,” in Sedgwick’s parlance, is the ultimate strong theory, although as Saint-Amour notes, “Sedgwick takes strong theory as shorthand for strong affect theory” (444). Nevertheless, Sedgwick’s allusion to Paul Ricoeur’s phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” suggests that she is not keeping a hard and fast distinction between affect theory and what in language and literature departments would fall under the heading of critical theory (which Sedgwick suggests might have become synonymous with “criticism itself”). Saint-Amour explains that
In fact all theories, as she [Sedgwick] understands Tomkins, are affect theories in that they seek to maximize positive and minimize negative affect on the part of the theorist, who could be Freud or one of his analysands, a tenured Marxist or a member of the global precariat. But then comes the counterintuitive part: affect theories that fail to minimize negative affect tend to become stronger, compensating for their failure by attempting to unify a wider and wider range of disparate phenomena. (444)
I’d like to expand this position slightly by looking to one of the places where nuance hides—the footnotes—in this case a three-paragraph, 486-word, footnote in Sedgwick and Adam Frank’s essay, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold.” Here Sedgwick and Frank complicate the premise that strong theories are strong by virtue of their ability to ward off negative affect. I quote their footnote at length here because it introduces the intriguing possibility of an open, expansive, paranoid theory:
Tomkins suggests that the measure of a theory’s strength is not how well it avoids negative affect or finds positive affect, but the size and topology of the domain that it organizes and its methods of determining that domain. His recurrent example of a weak theory is one that allows many of us to cross streets often without fear: those sets of actions summed up in the phrase “Look both ways before you cross” that enable an individual to act as if afraid so as to avoid the actual experience of fear—“affect acting at a distance” (Affect 2:320). What is weak about this theory is its restricted domain, perhaps initially understood to include only walking across the street where one first learned the rule as a child, analogically expanded to include walking across other streets or streetlike passages, then expanded more to include riding a bicycle or driving a car. Consider the case where this weak theory gets strong: “If the individual cannot find the rules whereby he can cross the street without feeling anxious [because of a series of unfortunate accidents, say], then his avoidance strategies will necessarily become more and more diffuse. Under these conditions the individual might be forced, first, to avoid all busy streets and then to go out only late at night when traffic was light; finally, he would remain inside, and if his house were to be hit by a car, he would have to seek refuge in a deeper shelter” (Affect 2:324). A strong theory is not more successful than a weak theory at “preventing the experience of negative affect,” here fear; in this case, quite the opposite. Both the cognitive antennae of the theory and the preventive strategies have changed. This individual has learned to count many more things as a street: this strong fear theorist is always ready to draw the line that expands his theory’s domain. (Sedgwick and Frank, “Shame,” 120–21n11)
Tompkins’s example of crossing the street, alongside Sedgwick and Frank’s focus on the geographical/topographical aspects of theory, is instructive. My first response to Tomkins’s homey example is to think, yes, without some way to manage fear in a world that is incalculably dangerous (by nature of our frailness as living beings who can be damaged by the smallest or most random of occurrences—a virus, a slip on the ice, a lightning strike) we could not function, could not attend to matters other than our bare survival. And yet, if we have learned anything from intersectional scholars and contemporary social movements such as #Black Lives Matter or #Me Too, we know that “crossing the street” (say, to buy a pack of skittles or to walk home after a night out) is not a neutral activity. Depending on one’s social location and the particular social/cultural topography of the street one wishes to cross, varying degrees of overpreparedness, avoidance, and paranoia might be warranted and, in some cases, life preserving.
Even in her essay about paranoid reading, Sedgwick does not reject paranoid reading, but rather its seeming ubiquity, at least in the early 2000s, when she compiled Touching Feeling. She notes that “the choice is not self evident; whether or not to undertake this highly compelling tracing-and-exposure project represents a strategic and local decision, not necessarily a categorical imperative” (Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 124). Not only are such decisions strategic and local, they are unfinished and ongoing. It is not the “aha” moment of exposure that is problematic in paranoid reading, but temptation to consider uncovering the ideological underpinnings of any particular cultural phenomenon an end in itself, rather than part of an ongoing process of engagement with the world. The pop cultural analogy to this dynamic would be “calling out” a friend or a colleague or community member for moments of witting or unwitting alliance with oppressive systems. Calling out is necessary in a culture where dominant privilege often goes unmarked and myriad “isms” go unnoticed and unredressed. But calling out, like paranoid reading, is most useful as a first step in an ongoing engagement with multiple and intersecting vectors of oppression and privilege. Some feminist and antiracist activists call this first step “calling in,” a process that is in many ways more arduous than calling out.
Calling out or calling in both involve local and strategic decisions about labor (emotional and intellectual) and efficacy. I think the same types of decisions apply to paranoid or reparative readings. Regardless of one’s decision, the process of reading is a beginning (perhaps a middle), not an end. The work of social-justice-oriented scholarship is ongoing, or “abiding,” a term that has both temporal and spatial connotations: waiting or enduring as well as staying with (or existing “beside,” in Sedgwickian terms). Indeed, Sedgwick’s qualm with paranoid reading is not that it is erroneous, but that it can crowd out other readings that should exist beside paranoid readings: “I myself have no wish to return to the use of ‘paranoid’ as a pathologizing diagnosis, but it seems to me a great loss when paranoid inquiry comes to seem entirely coextensive with critical theoretical inquiry rather than being viewed as one kind of cognitive/affective theoretical practice among other, alternative kinds” (“Paranoid Reading,” 126). “Strong” readings become closed readings when the hermeneutics of suspicion operate as if they are hermetically sealed. That is, if, after the “aha” moment (per Sedgwick) of unveiling the unseemly ideological underpinnings of a particular narrative, the wax ring of right thinking is applied and the interpretation is sealed. Reparative reading, in contrast, is subject to spoilage and rot because it is imperfectly sealed, but has the advantage of being available those who need sustenance because it is open (and out on the streets?) rather than carefully preserved on a shelf somewhere.
Love, Toxicity, and Going On
To continue with my canning analogy, I’ll end with a note on toxicity, since it seems one of the functions of (relatively) closed, (relatively) strong theory is to manage toxicity, specifically the toxicity of ideas that we may come across in the cultural artifacts we may happen to love. To love is to open one’s self to something/someone outside of one’s control. In literary studies, to love the work of an author (say the “glass-jawed grandee” Matthew Arnold, to cite Grace Lavery’s elegant essay) is to open one’s self to the taint of the author’s lapses into toxic ideology–Arnold’s sexist reiteration of the “bad mother trope,” Woolf’s embarrassing racist, ableist, or anti-Semitic moments, Gertrude Stein’s bizarre lauding of Maréchal Pétain, and a litany of other toxic encounters for critics and readers who may happen to love the work of T. S. Eliot, or Ezra Pound, or Yeats. Managing that toxicity runs the risk of excusing it or apologizing for it (e.g. Woolf really meant X and not Y when she made that comment about her mother-in-law, etc.). As an alternative to managing toxicity by sealing it off or explaining it away, José Esteban Muñoz developed the notion of “disidentification,” a practice he attributes to queer people of color who recycle “toxic” identity as a mode of resistance and resilience in a world not built for their survival or sustenance. Notably, for Muñoz, disidentification is not a theory but a performance, a practice, and thus subject to the imperfections and faults that come with liveness. Moreover, disidentification does not always fly. As he notes, “There are the limits to the strategies, tactics, and performativities that I have been exploring” (Muñoz, Disidenitfications, 161).
In that spirit, I would like to suggest that there are limits to reparative reading as well as weak theory, but these limits are not categorical or methodological, but contingent, local, and temporal. When my students and I consider whether a certain disidentificatory practice seems to fly, the questions we ask are not ontological (“is it” or “isn’t it” resistant?) but rather contextual, starting with the traditional journalists’ questions: Who? (for Whom?) What? Where? When? Why? and How? How might a certain practice be resilient and/or restrictive? For whom is this reparative? At what moment? How? If not, why not? The same types of questions might be asked of “weak” readings, such as Wai Chee Dimock’s reading of William Faulkner’s “reparations.” Hers is a rich and informative discussion of Faulkner’s apparent identification with denizens of post-World War II Japanese second cities, gesturing hopefully (yet cautiously) toward some articulation of potential “non-tragic sequels” to the “catastrophe of war,” “the two atomic bombs,” as well as “the tragedy of slavery, the tragedy of the Civil War” (594). Dimock is not naïve, and there is a certain bravery to her attempt to read Faulkner’s “reparations” reparatively at this particular moment in US history. I personally am not sure that we are at a moment, now, in 2019, where Faulkner’s identification with loss (being on the losing side of the Civil War) is something I want to repair. This has nothing to do with Dimock’s methodology and careful reading, and everything to do with the resurgence of arguably strong and paranoid theories of white victimization in the wake of the 2016 US Election. Crossing that street feels to dangerous at this current moment for me, although do I hope that the Tube of life hurtles me (with nary a hairpin) to some future location where that kind of reparation is possible.
David Sherman: Chaplin Boxing
I’ll begin with a rough allegory for the strength of weakness, Charlie Chaplin in the boxing ring in City Lights, and then consider modernist scholarship in the face of chance—not probability, but sheer chance. Chaplin and chance.
This weak theory cluster is a fascinating opportunity to consider research that acknowledges insufficiency and inadequacy in relation to more powerful opponents. Who are the relevant enemies? I rarely think like this, as a scholar, but the idea of weakness seems to call for it: weakness is relative to strength and implies a struggle against it, without reasonable hope. Reading for weakness, writing in weakness—such a stance involves an image of an antagonist’s power over us, some acknowledgment of vulnerability and exposure before potentially hostile others.
What might struggling in and through weakness feel like, in some compelling early-twentieth-century vision? About halfway through City Lights, the tramp loses his street sweeping job, he’s kicked back to the curb. Almost immediately, a boxer looking for someone to do a fight offers him money to join him in the ring. This offer just happens, without cause; we’re in a comedic world in which events arise because they are desirable, not because they are plausible. The tramp joins the other boxers in the locker room. Shirtless, gaunt, in shorts, still wearing his bowler, he realizes that his actual opponent is a hard-punching brute eager to destroy him in the ring. The tramp could simply run out the door, as the previous boxer already has, but he stays, nearly swooning with fear, committed by some secret logic to this impossible match. In fact, Chaplin makes the tramp’s weakness the most interesting aspect of the imminent fight: the question is not “who will win?” but “how can one so weak and fearful enter the ring? How will this fight even function?” The tramp is not brave, he does not approach the fight as an occasion to demonstrate courage, he is simply entangled in an unexpected struggle with a much stronger, brutal stranger.
The scene that follows is magnificent. Please watch it, here.
I want to better understand the beauty of this outmatched fight, which—how else to say it?—the tramp wins by losing. His tactics are astonishing. Rather than simply fighting, he manipulates the positions within the fight’s structure, changing their functions. His structural manipulations involve substitution (himself for the referee, mainly) and combination (himself clinging to his opponent). Both are absurd, as ways of fighting. Rather, they disarticulate the ring’s system of identities, and so also its economy of violence designed to brutalize him. Put in terms of affect theory, he interrupts the ring’s intensifications of bravery, cowardice, anger, and fear with a minor alternative sensibility, a playful fascination with the form of the boxers’ shared situation.
What does this gleeful, absurd agility for playing with the fight’s structure have to do with weakness? In the first place, the tramp reveals the way that strength and weakness are produced and allocated by the rules of the game. One contingently inhabits positions of strength or weakness within particular rules; others could have occupied these positions, different rules would allocate strength otherwise. The challenge, for the designated victim, is to finesse this interchange or at least to introduce confusion into the designated functions. Weakness is contingent, derived from a system’s variables, as well as relative.
But, in fact, we don’t need Chaplin to tell us about the structural contingency of identities across positions of strength and weakness in a fixed system. We likely know this sort of power analysis already. At a deeper level, what this gorgeous scene hinges on, beyond substitution and combination across interrelated identities, is the experience of repetition in time. The tramp is the force, not merely of mistaken identity, but of events repeating. This quality of the scene, as intricately repetitive, is far weirder and more pleasurable. What is the relation, for Chaplin, between weakness and a temporality of rampant repetition? Why does it seem so affectively, aesthetically right that everything in this unbalanced fight repeats?
Repetition and comedy, no less than repetition and the uncanny, are closely related. In comedy, as a general rule, nothing that matters happens once. In both comedy and the uncanny, rational causality breaks down in this particular way, events generating their own compulsive return. As it happens, the boxing scene in City Lights repeats a similar one from The Kid, which Chaplin made ten years prior, in 1921. In a hilarious episode, the tramp’s young child boxes a neighborhood bully in the street. He beats the bigger child, but in angering the bully’s dangerous older brother he risks losing by winning.
Strength and weakness, in much of Chaplin’s work, undermine one another as shifting, uncertain capacities. He sharpens this irony in City Lights, with the repetitive choreography of the fight itself. In this scene, nearly every step is part of a pattern that turns back on itself, again and again. Just as people substitute for one another in the ring’s space, so do moments in time. As the force or catalyst of comedic repetition, Chaplin’s tramp is weak in an unexpected way, not involving his limited capacity for violence but his illiteracy in boxing’s official time and space. His weakness, or incompetence, causes spacetime to stop making sense and narrative to fall apart, in order to fall back together in the shape of a joke.
Chaplin reminds us that comedy is the quintessential weak force, a way to lose without allowing further power to accrue to the strong, exposed to laughter. Comedy is a way for those without sufficient institutional power to imagine affective solidarity, shared pleasure, survival for another few days, partial justice, lucky interruptions, and other modes of not quite losing. Comedy, as an art of incompetence, discombobulates strength with weakness, the tramp dancing in a new choreography with a brutal opponent. At the same time, comedy weakens theory. Schematic, conceptual approaches to laughter risk being unintentionally funny, themselves; comedy seems to have been only rarely thematized in influential bodies of literary and cultural criticism. Why is the relation so oblique between Michel Foucault and comedy, Marxist cultural theory and comedy? Jacques Derrida, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin—their thought on comedy, as far as I can tell, is fraught and incomplete, even if they might provide suggestive conceptual resources for others. A theoretical flat-footedness toward our laughter goes back, arguably, to Aristotle’s notoriously missing treatise on the topic; comedy evades these heavy-hitting opponents in the critical ring, at least for awhile. I like to think that critique about and through frailty might recuperate bursts of laughter in our theoretical traditions: psychoanalysis, in its more witty moods; Hélène Cixous’s story, borrowed from Sun Tzu, about women’s irrepressible laughter at their socialization into patriarchy; the comedy that Judith Butler and others have helped us recognize at the heart of every sort of gender performance, steeped in repetition and parody; Foucault, himself, laughing at the beginning of The Order of Things, reading Jorge Luis Borges; and other weird moments of theory finding itself laughing. Michael North’s splendid Machine-age Comedy investigates modernism, in conversation with Bergson and including Chaplin, as a comedic discourse about the mechanization of the human. North shows that many have found the weakness of humanism, and humans, to be pretty funny.
In some way that I do not entirely understand, Chaplin’s absurd displacements and repetitions in the boxing scene in City Lights create a vivid effect of unconstrained luck, of randomness, within its intricate order. There could be no probability calculation for this fight, no odds. This antic sequence replaces the tramp’s weakness with a relation to sheer chance, a condition in which anything could happen, regardless of probability. Within this dance, the tramp becomes unlucky rather than lacking in strength, while his opponent emerges as luckier but not stronger. Chance, as its own unknowable order, has absorbed the entire economy of strength and weakness into its non-rational, unmeaningful pleasure. My point is not just that the fight could have ended otherwise, in some mimetic imagining, but that Chaplin creates an entirely indeterminate struggle, an agentless freedom, and an empowerment of weakness as radical contingency.
Like comedic pleasure, chance evades theoretical understanding, at the interstices of cogent analysis. Chance itself, untamed and beyond algorithm, isn’t representable. Over the twentieth century, many writers and artists animated contingency as a narrative or compositional principle; they cultivated effects of indeterminate play, random event, non-intentionality, freedom without agency, chaos. They sought to render, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase from Jacob’s Room, the “chasms in the continuity of our ways.” Comedy can open such a chasm, briefly. As a mode for re-shuffling contingency and necessity, the inevitable and accidental, comedy is one of modernism’s weak ways of exploring frailty and subverting ideologies of wholeness, autonomy, and mastery. It reveals the antic repetition at the secret heart of these qualities. It improvises fight tactics, or dance moves, for opponents who reduce weakness to one simple meaning.
Kate Stanley: Tough and Tender
Wai Chee Dimock opens her essay “Weak Network” with an elegant equivalence, using the constructive divergence of weak theory from strong theory to invoke the field-altering distinction by which reparative approaches, via Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, countered the entrenched tendencies of the paranoid. As Dimock writes: “Two kinds of reading: one strong and one weak, one damaging the world, and the other trying to make amends.” Sedgwick’s reparative rubric intends not to censor or codify the critic’s toolbox, and in a similar spirit Dimock resists evaluating or even describing an emergent set of “weakly experimental” approaches to literary criticism (“Weak Network,” 588). Dimock comes closest to defining what she calls “weak reparation” when she indicates a would-be methodology that is “improvised rather than planned, plural rather singular, its scope and efficacy still to be tested, but with consequences already discernible” (589, 587). Encompassing disparate figures from Matthew Arnold to Kate Zambreno, the exceptional diversity of weak method and clear consequence demonstrated within Modernism/modernity’s weak theory issue testifies to the generative capaciousness of what can be gathered under Dimock’s definition.
Yet despite the blooming and unruly potential that Dimock points towards, I am struck by the uncanny echo of descriptors like improvisational, plural, and consequence-oriented, which point back with great precision to William James’s original definition of his “pragmatist method.” In a lecture series from 1907 James would introduce pragmatism as (1) an improvisational method of intervening into critical debates; (2) a pluralist worldview; and (3) a consequence-driven theory of truth. The marked resemblance between James’s characterization of pragmatism and Dimock’s characterization of weak reparation might be explained in part by the fact that Sedgwick’s reparative reader par excellence—Silvan Tomkins—explicitly derived his own influential model of affect from James’s structure of emotion. Elsewhere I have considered how the “feedback circuits” of Tomkins’s affect are highly redolent of James’s “proprioceptive circuit” of emotion. In the limited space of this response I want to note that it is Tomkins who makes a foundational distinction between strong and weak affect theories and that this distinction owes a crucial debt to the founding gesture of pragmatism; namely the strong/weak split James asserts between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” schools of philosophy. As I hope to suggest, recalling this aspect of Tomkins’s affiliation with James helps to address several concerns raised by Paul Saint-Amour in “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” his introduction to the M/m issue.
The Middle Way of Pragmatism
Like Dimock, Saint-Amour aligns weak theory with Sedgwick’s reparative position, yet he worries that efforts to displace paranoid strains of strong criticism with weak reparation too often produce a “caricature of ‘critique’ as addicted to binary decipherment” (“Weak Theory,” 444). One way of forestalling such strawman tactics—of doing justice to the “counterintuitive dynamics that distinguish weak from strong affect theories”—might involve tracing these Tomkinsian dynamics back, and grounding them in James (455). In his introductory lecture on pragmatism James presents the following table of opposed philosophical positions:
“The Tough-minded” “The Tender-minded”
Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’) Empiricist (going by ‘facts’)
With this table, James effectively condenses the most contentious critical debates consuming the field of philosophy at the turn of the century. While the oppositions he lays out might not seem immediately relevant to literary studies, James’s point is that every field has its own structuring antagonisms, which pragmatism is poised to mediate.
Having identified these binaries James observes that most scholars are inconsistent in their intellectual commitments, “mixing incompatibles from opposite sides of the line” (Writings, 492). Rather than condemning these inconsistencies, James invites us to embrace them:
Facts are good, of course—give us lots of facts. Principles are good—give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way, but as indubitably is it many, if you look at it in another. It is both one and many—let us adopt a sort of pluralistic monism. Everything of course is necessarily determined, and yet of course our wills are free: a sort of free-will determinism is the true philosophy. (492)
Shuttling freely between the columns he has just compiled, James shows how readily apparently intractable oppositions can begin to elide. As he notes, “most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line” (491-92). Pragmatism teaches that these “hankerings”—recognition of a given tool or viewpoint’s functional utility for a given task—are not to be dismissed in the name of consistency; instead of privileging one column, or even one term, over another, we might discern and permit a “middle way” (328).
Saint-Amour seems to suggest something similar when he affirms that weak theory can help us recover “forgotten middles and superseded alternatives” (“Weak Theory,” 438). In a tender frame of mind James might pluralistically agree, but for pragmatists the “middle way” more reliably emerges out of interactions that confuse and confound the very categories of tender and tough. Sedgwick’s reading of Tomkins similarly seeks middle ground by tracking the various ways that “strong theoretical constructs interact with weak ones in the ecology of knowing.” While Saint-Amour sees critics after Sedgwick trying to “supersede” paranoid strong theories with modes of reparation, Sedgwick herself looks to Tomkins to enlarge the critical repertoire of “alternative models for allowing strong and weak theory to interdigitate” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 444; Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 145). As the primary source for some of these “alternative models,” James hence perhaps occupies a special position for weak theorizing, augmenting our critical repertoire, but also clarifying the dynamics of these “interdigitations.”
Where a critic falls on the methodological continuum between tender and tough, weak and strong, is less a matter of intellectual conviction or strategic positioning for James than it is a matter of temperament. This word in his usage is deliberately slippery; alternating between the terms “temperament” and “temper,” James’s descriptions encompass something constitutionally stable—a “natural predisposition” (as per the OED)—and also something much more changeable—a passing inclination or mood. The moving target of his terminology can feel frustratingly imprecise, but such apparent imprecision reflects James’s interest in examining the unpredictable ways that one’s emotional and intellectual proclivities inflect each other. Outlining his own oscillations between tough- and tender-mindedness, James admits to being “weakly endowed on the rationalist side” so that he favors “a strong leaning towards empiricism” (Writings, 1001). Where one might expect to find him championing one philosophical position over another, James only remarks that he prefers empirical observations to rationalist deductions because he is temperamentally inclined and thus better suited to working that way. James invites his audience to examine their own temperamental inclinations and to lean into those strengths—but always with a reflective awareness of the degree to which one’s critical stance is informed by idiosyncratic predilections.
When James crosses from the “tender” column into “tougher” territory to declare his belief in free will, the role played by temperament becomes even harder to pin down. In the origin story he tells about pragmatism in The Will to Believe (1896), it is in fact his depressive disposition that motivates his rejection of a deterministic worldview. The conviction that his actions make a difference, however small, in shaping an open-ended universe animates James insofar as it works against the paralyzing “neurasthenia” he suffered most acutely as a young man. As he would controversially contend in his pragmatism lectures, an idea like free will can only be considered true to the extent that “consequences useful to life flow from it” (James, Writings, 606). To borrow a formulation from Benjamin Kahan, James’s belief in free will “is generative rather than right.” Crucially, the truth of an idea as measured by its generativity can never be definitively determined; it must be subjected to an ongoing process of verification and validation. In Dimock’s words, its “scope and efficacy” are always “still to be tested.” James emphasizes that testing the beliefs that shape one’s worldview is a lifelong commitment; indeed he must renew his faith in free will on a daily basis in order to convince himself “to get out of bed in the morning” (Richardson, William James, 203).
In its improvisational, ends-oriented pluralism, pragmatism remains vulnerable to some of the same criticisms as weak theory: both methods are easily accused of being “unrigorous, quietist, anti-theory, anti-intellectual” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 445). By way of concluding I want to briefly sketch how James himself defended pragmatism to his critics, in hopes that these counterpoints might prove useful in thinking about the strengths and potential pitfalls of weak theory. First, responding to the complaint that pragmatism is unrigorous, James suggests that it requires considerably more rigor to test and retest an ever-evolving belief than it does to hold firm to a fixed idea. As such, he challenges those who would detect laxity in the pragmatist method of truth-testing to “keep its commandment one day”—to walk awhile in a pragmatist’s shoes so that they might experience first-hand its exacting demands (James, Writings, 588-89). Second, speaking to allegations of quietism, James argues that the processes of reflective self-examination fostered by pragmatist inquiry provide crucial preparation for public pronouncement and political affiliation; an apparently passive process of contemplation provides a necessary platform for effective action. Third, in response to the accusation that pragmatism is anti-theory and anti-intellectual, James explains that his rejection of capital “T” Theory is in fact “anti-intellectualist” in its refusal of all dogmas and doctrines (511). In the pragmatist’s hands, theories “become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest” (510-11). With his instrumentalist approach to philosophy, James means to put theoretical insights and frameworks to work in everyday life. By calling pragmatism “a new name for an old way of thinking” (the subtitle for the lecture series), James aims to recover “ancient philosophic tendencies,” which for him means reviving productive continuities between the activities of daily living and philosophizing (510). The task of reviving these lines of continuity depends for James on our acknowledging the central role that temperament plays in all acts of theorizing.
To a unique degree, Tomkins’s work internalizes and elaborates James’s insights around the intimate relation between temperament and theory. When Tomkins claims all theory as affect theory (an equivalence that raises question marks for Saint-Amour) he is extending the pragmatist project of untethering theoretical exploration from confining scholarly debates—from strong spheres—to instead incorporate those methodologies of critical investigation that might be considered too personal, too casual, too lawless—the alternative, the contingent, the weak (445). For Tomkins, as for James, there is no discernable difference between “the explicit theorizing some scientists and philosophers do around affect,” and the “largely tacit theorizing all people do in experiencing and trying to deal with their own and others’ affects” (Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” 133-34). This is to say that in Jamesian and Tomkinsian terms, theory is reframed by its common practice, an approach that helps bridge and commingle the work of the scholar and the work of daily life.
Weak Theory in the Classroom
In my experience, the privileged place for navigating relations between scholarly and quotidian kinds of work is always the classroom. For this reason, I understand both the promise of pragmatism and the promise of weak theory to be primarily pedagogical. Particularly when teaching modernism, to take seriously the ordinary everydayness of theory is also to work against intimidation, that common impediment to student responsiveness. As argued by Richard Poirier, the critic who first brought the pragmatist method to literary studies, “Modernism ‘happened,’ when reading got to be intimidated.” It may be true, as Saint-Amour contends, that the reductive understanding of modernism as “strong people exhibiting strength” belongs to “a largely superseded moment in modernist studies” (“Weak Theory,” 437). Likewise, a great deal of scholarly energy has been devoted to overturning the concomitant portrait of “the critic as heroic demystifier” (439). However, I find in my classes that the mythologies of strong modernism and strong theory live on; indeed, they often feed one another because “strenuous innovation” would seem to demand equally intensive theoretical analysis (437).
In this context, modernism draws much of its perceived strength—its capacity to enthrall but also overwhelm students; its capacity, per Dimock, to do damage—from its aura of difficulty, inaccessibility, significance. This of course is not to claim that the experience of awe or the challenge of complexity are affects unwanted by students or unproductive for teachers. But too often the experience of intimidation begets defensiveness, an armored wariness which is the enemy of discovery. Strength-as-intimidation leaves students fewer options for response: defensive postures generally result in an attack or a retreat. In attack mode, strong modernism is most often met with a strain of strong theory that frequently inherits and perpetuates the modernist mythos of “difficulty-as-virtue” (Poirier, Renewal, 99). In the mode of retreat, wary defenses harden into unreceptivity or dissipate into disregard. This is where Tomkins’s pragmatist understanding of theory as an experimental series of personal acts might prove pedagogically useful. When a staid or strong discourse of theory is loosened or tempered into quotidian terms, then a modernist work typically presented as “difficult”—seemingly approachable only by the critically elite, monistic, and tough—can instead offer “density” (the term Poirier prefers)—an immersive and diffuse realm admitting a corresponding density of critical approaches, none too timid or tough.
Scott Herring: Weak, Frail Modernism
A good example of weak modernism is that almost 2–lb doorstop of strong theory—Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971). This is an unlikely proposition given the book’s misogyny, its indifference to diverse strains within modernism, and its unwavering commitment to instantiating T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound as the nucleus of the international avant-garde. Recall that its title doubles as a thesis and that three-word argument is a strong one: an obvious time period had an obvious lodestar with an obvious aesthetic. Here’s All You Need to Know about Modernism is the takeaway, and little wonder that we have spent decades confirming its negligence. But upon rereading it, I was surprised that the men of The Pound Era embody many of the same characteristics that Paul K. Saint-Amour and his contributors grant weak modernism: fragility, marginalization, diminution, sincere modesty. Kenner’s text is a useful reminder that “the history of literary criticism can also be viewed as a repertoire of alternative models for allowing strong and weak theory to interdigitate.” Modernist literary and cultural criticism is no different and a Solomon’s choice between these interpretive modes is unnecessary.
I am not alone in thinking so. I take my improbable lead from Mark McGurl, whose 466-page The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) signifies on Kenner from its title to its scope. McGurl notes the “smallness of my concerns” as he concentrates on how American creative writing programs encouraged later twentieth-century genres such as “lower-middle-class modernism,” and he sees a kindred spirit in Kenner given the latter’s concentrated focus on a select few. “The model for that humility,” McGurl unironically tells us while assessing his own topical constraint, “is already latent in Kenner, who probably didn’t expect anyone to start referring to the period of modernism, the modernist era, as the ‘Pound Era.’ Pound? Please” (The Program Era , 368). If this line of thinking persuades you, Kenner’s old humility presages this special issue’s “new modesty.”
I appreciate The Program Era, not least because McGurl utterly defamiliarizes The Pound Era for me. When I was a graduate student seeking safe harbor in New Modernisms at the close of the twentieth century, I saw Kenner as an interpretive pariah, bloated, a bad object. Kenner a modest critic? Please. I recognize myself in Saint-Amour’s introduction as he rehearses how we chucked “this heroic ‘men of 1914’ script” that The Pound Era instantiated as much as Blasting and Bombardiering (“Weak Theory,” 440). I agree with his substitution when the end of his introduction replaces a quote from Pound’s ABC of Reading with his own closing line—“modernism is weakness that stays weak” (456).
From my little corner of queer American modernist studies, this working definition is an accurate diagnosis that comports with Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers’s aerial view in Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (2015). But we should recall later modernist literary criticism alongside “its early theorists” when Saint-Amour cites a work from 1934 to capture archaic versions of the field’s “self-understanding” (“Weak Theory,” 437). We could treat these ensuing writings, McGurl suggests, “as a heuristic device”: “It’s best, then, to think of the idea of the ‘Pound Era’ as a heuristic device, a famously useful tool for entering into the study of literary modernism but not one that will give an adequately inclusive perspective on the whole.” (The Program Era, 368). Pound himself becomes precisely such a trope by the close of Saint-Amour’s introduction. Mouthing an epigram that knows for certain what modern literature should surely be, this version of Pound vocalizes an antiquated modernism that much of our research has left behind. His idea of literature is yesterday’s news.
Yet when Pound rhetorically recedes, the issue opens onto fairly canonical case studies sometimes paired with less prominent authors: Grace Lavery on Matthew Arnold; Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde on Virginia Woolf alongside Kate Zambreno; Wai Chee Dimock on William Faulkner with Jim Barnes and Gerald Vizenor; Gabriel Hankins on Willa Cather and Djuna Barnes. Partially revamped from his Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (2015), Saint-Amour’s introduction likewise stems from that monograph’s “investment in canonical fictions of the interwar metropole.” What looks like a throwback to an “old-fashioned modernism,” however, turns out to be a restoration aided by a new modernist studies at least twenty-five years old (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 456). We are all the better for these revisions, for sure. Three Guineas reads differently when Micir and Vadde place it alongside Heroines. Les poètes maudits get a new member thanks to Sara Crangle. Benjamin Kahan vividly refurbishes a well-worn tale about Western sexual modernity. A star is reborn with Lavery’s Arnold. Nothing lost; everything gained.
Can we do the same for fuddy-duddy modernist criticism? We frequently depart from earlier interpretations as our citations of new modernist studies themselves become heuristic devices. When we reference a “heroic ‘men of 1914’ script” qua script we aren’t just summoning primary sources but tomes like Kenner’s that calcified this narrative—and we presume that we’re over and done with his tired tale. Mindful of Jennifer Wicke’s caution against “purging modernist orthodoxy of formalism, tradition, hierarchies, social Darwinism, commercialism, bourgeois modernism, neo-imperialism, and totalization of all kinds,” what would a return visit look like with a new modernist studies take on such criticism? Would a twenty-first-century critic risk looking unwise before a jury of their peers? Not up to speed?
Perhaps, but one might nonetheless discern unfamiliar resonances along with accompanying eyerolls. To wit: Kenner and Saint-Amour share a concern with what the latter calls “shared debility” (“Weak Theory,” 456). At the end of The Pound Era we find the men of 1914 sputtering out. “‘I botched it,’” Pound confesses in a line Kenner reprints from an October 1967 interview with Allen Ginsberg where the shamed Venetian rues that “‘I should have been able to do better.’” If it seems odd to recount Pound’s reparative self-reading with a queer Jewish poet twenty months before the Stonewall riots, consider too how The Pound Era’s emphasis on “Endings” (the title of its closing chapter) attends to dying and disabled Irish, British, Canadian, and American men. We find a “dwindling Eliot” who can barely breathe and an incapacitated Williams who “could no longer read and could barely type” (Kenner, The Pound Era, 551, 541). A worn down Lewis is “installed at the age of 60 in a world where nobody knew who he was” (500). Pound is “aged, a relic” (558). In its closing, at least, The Pound Era is weakish theory, a work of mourning by a male critic longing for mostly male approval (“many who helped and whom I had hoped to please are dead” [xii]). While Michael Rosenthal rightly clocked its anti-feminism in a 1972 New York Times book review, Kenner’s is nonetheless a weak network that strengthens into a hubristic device. Though grandiose while young, his aging artists do not bang or whimper but wheeze.
There’s something else to be ascertained from these moments in The Pound Era, however bombastic I still find it to be. We could think more about frailty and aesthetics as much as this issue asks us to think about “fragile geographies” (Hankins) and fragile professions (Micir and Vadde, poignant on “legions of adjunct laborers—largely women—who have been exiled from the realm of the expert”). We might also track what feminist critic Kathleen Woodward—whose At Last, The Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (1980) taught me much about “an aging Modernism”—has dubbed fragilization in her theory of bodymind across the gendered lifespan and “the delicate ‘frailty’ of the elderly.”
To do so would not re-idealize someone like Kenner, who deems Pound and Marianne Moore “the last survivors” (The Pound Era, 560). He is as mistaken on this head count as his all-male tome was on Woolf, among others. Think, for starters, about Jacob Lawrence painting Supermarket—Periodicals in 1994 in his late seventies; Dorothea Tanning publishing her surrealist poetry Coming to That at age 101 in 2011; Charles Henri Ford queerly collaging at The Dakota almost seventy years after he co-authored The Young and Evil. Each made their modernism while the new modernist studies was in vogue.
How do we best theorize these artists who found themselves gerontologically peripheral to the experimental excitement of interwar metropoles that many once inhabited? What did that feel like for them? Couldn’t our scholarship care for the frailty of their modernist bodies as they negotiated strengths and weaknesses that came along with aging? Not all elderly moderns claimed, as Moore did, “So he who strongly feels, / behaves.” Others like Ford felt that “Life used to be just / A bowl of cherries now it’s / More a garbage dump.” But they kept on crafting their avant-gardes deep into the twentieth century and even our aughts. Filtered through Great Recession-era studies like McGurl’s, passé criticism such as Kenner’s spurs some of my thinking on this front. Much like this issue’s canon warping, we can employ seemingly strong literary criticism to mine what Dimock identifies as “nonstandard flourishings within a multisited field”—whatever “flourishings” meant to any given experimentalist on any given day of any given late life. Call it geromodernism and add it to the mix.
Yan Tang: The Politics of Naming
Instead of tackling the question or the problem head on, directly, straightforwardly, which would doubtless be impossible, inappropriate, or illegitimate, should we proceed obliquely? I have often done so, even to the point of demanding obliqueness by name even while acknowledging it, some might think, as a failure of duty.
—Jacques Derrida, On the Name
Towards the end of his special issue introduction, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Paul Saint-Amour recalls a haunting accusation from Max Brzezinski “that the new modernist studies emptied modernism of its political content in order to consolidate it as a brand.” While he incisively points out Brzezinski’s assumption about the unitary nature of the new modernist studies implied by the rhetoric of branding, Saint-Amour expresses similar concerns “that modernism, denuded of declarative, definitional, or analytical sharpness, becomes the licensed swoosh, bird, or ghost under which we all do various kinds of globalizing business” (“Weak Theory,” 455). Saint-Amour’s strategic response to this risk is to adopt a new affective-critical language: “But when what you oppose has a death-grip on repetition and dissemination, you may need to shift registers: you may need not only different ways of speaking your opposition, but different scales and intensities at which to speak it” (455). For him, the task of weakening modernism and of constant affective attunement in literary scholarship is to “stay weak” (456). This is very much in line with the ethical and political task of negative dialectics, a weak dialectic or messianism that remains open instead of imposing teleological routes and affirmation through negation. For to abandon the term “modernism” and move on—to negate and replace—assumes as much authoritarian agency as Eurocentric canonization of modernism does; it is crucial to continue to expose what structures modernism as ideology especially when the new modernist studies is undergoing an exciting restructuring.
I believe that the new modernist studies has been and will continue to be benefiting from this increasing attention to the affective-political weakening of modernism and our methodologies; more works in the vein of restructuring global modernism and decentering whiteness need to be done. For the purpose of this short essay, however, I want to turn to one seemingly banal or non-threatening yet in fact strong and ideology-entrenched textual practice: the act of naming.
It’s one thing to define; it’s quite another to name. Defining a term is a rhetorical, epistemological, scholarly practice with the purpose of setting up a premise that serves one or several arguments. Naming is a linguistic, ideological, and ontological practice of identification and (mis)recognition, a practice whose politics cannot be warranted by whatever form of inclusivity a definitional practice provides. What is happening in Saint-Amour’s account of the weakening of modernism as a central term is a shift from defining to naming “modernism” or “modernist.” To be more specific, there is a methodological and theoretical shift in the new modernist studies from conceptualizing “modernism” in a proposition of “subject + predicate” (modernism is . . .) to describing and hypothesizing “modernism” as an unnamable set whose subsets are configured by localized acts of identification and naming, “a lattice of nodes and traits, detectable as site-specific subsets of an unnamed set” (452). Or, as Thomas Davis and Nathan Hensley describe it through Adorno, modernism “illuminates the ether in which the jargon flourishes.”
My concern is that this is precisely a form of negative theology where the lingering, spectral name of “modernism” not only indexes but in fact risks licensing “detectable”—thus namable—constellations of affects that are ready to be molded into whatever forms suitable for global business. What’s more, when the term “modernism” is left to be a hypothetical, heuristic, or absent presence, its definitional vagueness does not forestall the act of naming, but rather further sanctions and intensifies the necessity of this act in the affective and subjunctive mood. Once the definitional attempt weakens, once the link between the subject and the predicate breaks, the previously latent act of naming now becomes the minimal yet strongest thread to sustain the ideological, rhetorical, and affective investments that have been put into the weakening of modernism while being able to preserve the weakening but never vanished subject of the West. Unable to legitimize discursive assimilation or exclusion of the other, this subject holds onto the residual power of naming, of identifying “modernism” as such-and-such in the subjunctive mood. While the subjunctive and affective can signal potentialities, such potentialities would not be realized as more evenly distributed cultural capital in the global market economy unless the formation and power of the subject are restructured at the same time. In a word, the subjunctive mood is not innocent.
Lastly, this minimal yet strong act of naming seems to have its rhetorical counterpart of minimalism: the rhetoric of “even” from the subject who names. “It suggests that even those of us who think of ourselves as scholars of British or United States modernism,” Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz write, “can no longer exclude nonanglophone works from our teaching and research.” (Or, as Saint-Amour writes in his introduction, “not all of this journal’s readers will recognize, in the foregoing descriptions, the global field of modernist studies, or even the wedge of that field—studies of mostly Anglophone modernism by scholars based in British and North American universities—represented by this special issue” (“Weak Theory,” 442; my emphasis). Corresponding to the deceptively tenuous act of naming, the rhetoric of “even” bears the risk of self-marginalization, of reconsolidating the ideological fortress of modernism that, in creating an illusion of collapse and marginalization via a feeling of modesty, retains its power and domination.
“Going where it is possible to go would not be a displacement or a decision, it would be the irresponsible unfolding of a program,” writes Derrida (On the Name, 59). The central question, then, is this: as much as one can weaken and proliferate the meaning of modernism (modernism as a function, a catalyst, or an auxiliary term), how does one imagine a politics of the act of naming, of identifying and acknowledging the name “modernism” in ways that embrace radical openness towards alterity rather than justify intellectual condescension and hierarchies? Can one perform an act of naming in local sites and analyses that more effectively help modernism find a third position beyond a product of institutionalization and a floating signifier?
By no means can I offer any definite answer to these questions, but I think it is important to recognize at least a fundamental tension between the recent affective investments in rethinking what “modernism” means and the strong act of naming in localized sites that tends to foreclose or limit what the affective investments precisely try to open up. A more descriptive and clearer way to look at this tension is through the concept of “wicked problems.” This term was first used by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber to “describe those problems facing social planners . . . that are particularly complex in contrast to easier to define and better behaved problems with which scientists dealt,” and problems “which are inherently ill-defined, largely intractable and for which implementation of provisional solutions has significant consequences for social systems. A wicked problem is “untamable”; any attempt to “tame” part of the problem will be proved logically and morally wrong on the scale of the whole problem. If modernism can be understood as a wicked problem, then each act of naming bears the risk of not taming the problem but asserting the problem to be tamable in the first place.
Of course, this wicked problem is not new, but its persistence induces a new problematic realignment between the critical investment in affect and the act of naming. Published in 2001 in Modernism/modernity, Susan Friedman's essay “Definitional Excursions” suggests the new modernist studies need to “shift the focus from the debate about signifieds for the disputed terms to an analysis of what produces the dissonance in the first place.” A similar call for disclosing the complex conditions of modernism’s definitional dissonance can be found in Jennifer Wicke’s essay “Appreciation, Depreciation,” published alongside Friedman's essay in the same issue of the journal. Wicke’s essay points out a parallel between the modernist tulip market and speculative bubbles in modernist studies: “The parallel disavowals we make in our self-professed roles as arbiters of the new modernisms include purging modernist orthodoxy of formalism, tradition, hierarchies, social Darwinism, commercialism, bourgeois modernism, neoimperialism, and totalization of all kinds, without seeing how much we rely on the modernist brand.” What happened during the last twenty years in the new modernist studies was that the debates on modernism’s definitional difficulty underwent a discursive and paradigmatic shift from diagnosing this difficulty as “dissonances” and “bubbles” to embracing it as “definitional proliferation.” This shift is indispensable to increasing attention to global modernism, Anthropocene studies, and Digital Humanities among other new methodologies in modernist studies, and it has proven to be very productive. Yet Friedman’s and Wicke’s essays remind us that a welcoming gesture towards definitional proliferation does not necessarily make itself immune to the haunting question of what produces the bubble or dissonance—that is, the old problems of ideological and socio-economic structures continue to undergird the new modernist studies in more adaptable and intensified ways through branding and re-branding. In this regard, Saint-Amour’s introduction is the most recent and careful reminder that 1) it is all the more important to tackle these “old problems” of branding in the age of proliferation; 2) to do so means to also take into account the critical potential of the weak and weakening affect of literary criticism when global capitalism is the ultimate enemy and strong theory.
This is where the much-neglected act of naming becomes an increasingly acute problem because branding and rebranding now precisely rely on how one names modernism and makes it visible—hence marketable. This irreducible act of naming, now armored with affect, seems to be a dead end or a wicked problem of its own kind. But this dead end might in fact be a new starting point for not only rethinking one’s own affective entanglement with modernism, but also adopting a mode of critique that clarifies and investigates the positionality of the subject who names. While weakening the agency of critical language operates on an affective spectrum of weak and strong, to reimagine a politics of naming that has been shrouded in the affect of criticism seems to require at least some clarity of the subject’s positionality beyond this affective spectrum. This clarity comes down to an explication of one’s position to others, to the object of study, and to one’s own limits without the rhetoric of “even.” However, this clarity does not mean strong; on the contrary, it is an act of acknowledgment, a first step towards a form of naming that articulates its insights, blindness, and relationality.
To end my essay with a thought experiment on the name: what 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?
Aaron Jaffe and Michael F. Miller: Strong Claims for Weak Theory
The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there
like fortitude! What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!
—Marianne Moore, “Nevertheless”
In weakness, does Modernism overcome its menace?
Paul Saint-Amour makes strong claims for weak theory and for weak modernism. In his introduction to the special issue on this subject, he makes decisive points about how the distributed effects of weakness inform the way we do, or ought to do, modernism now (with apologies to Stephen Best, Sharon Marcus, and, of course, Anthony Trollope). Above all, he makes the case that “theoriz[ing] from weakness,” as he puts it, “can open up a space for “marginal subjects” inviting us to explore “the proximate, the provisional, and the probabilistic” on common ground as fellow travelers in the weak. In a way, Marianne Moore anticipates the move to and from this category in her animal poems, when she celebrates the defensive posture of the “strong-shod” pangolin, for instance, or, Wallace Stevens’s invocation of bantams in pine-woods, strong vates out-gamed by weak poultry (Moore, Complete Poems, 118–19).
Can anyone really remember a time when each noun being qualified with the term weak was not also being stentoriously pronounced “over?” What virtue in being realistic about weakness, humility, and modesty might extend to those late to the party? For one, Saint-Amour says, drawing on Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, it helps reduce the excessive, somewhat caricatured anomie associated with the arrogance of “decryptive” critical practices, including what he describes as “feeling shitty about capitalism” (“Weak Theory,” 444). Willfully choosing “epistemological humility,” then, like Morpheus’s pill, lets modernist studies take in “the steady weakening of its key term, modernism” (441) as the precondition of scholarly and affective positioning and as a means to fly by the nets of ideological or immanent critique.
In this diagnosis, as the field of study rapidly expands, it weakens, stretched thin by tendentious relations to various literary and cultural nodes across time and space. Commitment to a strongly defined Modernism wanes—registered in the abandoned capital M, perhaps—even as the sense of modernism as a strong value-positive term does not. Saint-Amour puts the paradox this way: “Having shed its drive to coherentism, the field could cohere” (441). In fact, this assertion presupposes some rather complicated level-adjustments across different categories and criteria. Jumping across the instrument panel from strength-weakness to coherence-incoherence, for instance, points us to fundamental impasses about signal detection, reflexivity, and critical-aesthetic practice in modernity. Set the dials weakly enough, as it were, and modernism and theory—those recalcitrant nouns—start to sound indistinguishable. Indeed, if feats of weakness reveal special abilities, the most impressive feat of strength-in-weakness may be to make modernism and theory dance to the same tune. Put another way, weak signals require strong, finely-tuned instruments, and strong informatic signal detection is necessarily accompanied by covert and overt forms of virtue signaling.
In a cybernetic sense, strong signals from weakness might also be considered strong informatic noise. In this way, the shared weakness of modernism and theory might also signal a hangover of strong positivism, or, in the very least, a renewed appreciation of positivism’s implications for the production of cultural value. Citing physics and sociology as examples of “other disciplines” that provide descriptively strong accounts of their objects of study, Saint-Amour suggests that modernist studies could learn a lot from sociometric revelations concerning how “weak social ties enable information to travel farther and more rapidly than strong ones do” (447). In the issue, concern with the rapid dissemination of information through weakly configured networks plays out not only in first-order modernist modes of sociality but also as a model for second-order contemporary work in modernist studies: the network, the bibliography as a network, the archive as a network, scholarly practice as a network, the network as network. For media theorist Wendy Chun, “The study of networks thus oddly mirrors its subject . . . making it difficult to separate network analyses from networks themselves.” All hail the Network, the tacitly prescriptive measure of social-cultural value as such borrowed from the way we live now. Yet, as Boris Groys observes in Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media, the network is not a value-neutral preserve—its constitutive activity available for all to access and describe willy-nilly—but a prescriptive and regulative format of hidden phenomenologies.
By emphasizing strongly the varying modes of communicative (and/as) informatic exchange that occur within “social networks,” the issue too often treats modernism, theory, and information as interchangeables (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 447). In his essay, “The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies,” Gabriel Hankins shows 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. So, if you agree that the most pressing task facing modernist studies today is to describe networks of filiation and to focus on “recovery, categorization, and dissemination,” then it also makes sense to “refuse strong models of authority, history, and genealogy,” and adopt positivism-driven computational processes from which to facilitate the standardization of metadata—i.e., information—about modernist texts. A strong appreciation in a general sense for positivist methods and the forms of epistemological value they promote manages here to take the place previously held by theoretical reflection and critical reflexivity.
It is this strong view of modernism as a social network—plugged-in totality by another name— and the work of modernist studies in particular as the parsing of “citations and cross-references, and the proliferating threads of association that result” that we want to pause over, put pressure on, reboot. The reduction of modernism and modernist artifacts to metadata that signify their general qualities of “aboutness” is overly determined by what Alexander Galloway refers to as “reticular empiricism” in his wide-ranging conversation with David M. Berry. It is no small coincidence, we think, that the examples of modernist literary and cultural production provided in the issue readily lend themselves to network analyses and data-visualizations. From this perspective, modernism becomes a literary-historical index, another archive of already-existing documentary evidence indexing particular informatic or historical facts ripe for rediscovery, recovery, and data processing by the present-day scholar.
In Indexing It All: The Subject in the Age of Documentation, Information, and Data (2014), Ronald Day offers an account of how we have come to view literary texts as “information containers that satisfy specific questions—information needs,” and we do not think it is too far of stretch to suggest that this account also indexes a technical shift from critical reader or scholar to information user. “Using” modernism in such a way, Saint-Amour points out, is to view it more as a resource, something to be pragmatically deployed to fulfill “one use in an unspecified set of credible uses,” and what qualifies as a credible use is the specific use to which modernism is presently being put (“Weak Theory,” 452). “Using” modernism in this guise is like searching a text for a specific word. You know it’s there somewhere, you just have to find it. Putting modernism to good use is to “satisfy specific questions—information needs,” as Day puts it, which always “requires a pre-understanding which coordinates understandings that developed from it” (Indexing it All, 19, 26).
Still, if “doing” modernism means searching the archive for documentary evidence—or, in some instances rather complex forms of forensic documentation—to confirm one’s hunch or satisfy the information user’s demand, then what role does the New (or, the Avant-Garde, for that matter) play in this formulation? By leveraging the field’s self-definition upon “the scholar’s self-conscious performance . . . as one use in an unspecified set of credible uses,” modernism becomes, as Steven Connor points out, “no longer something in the past to which we are compelled to make out a relation; it is the product of that relation itself, to a past continually new-minted as whatever we will need to mean by ‘modernist.’” Make It Weak is a formulation that doesn’t so much replace the New with the Weak as it hides it therein. Weakly theorizing modernism, Saint-Amour writes, “helps us continue to make theory and modernism strange to themselves” (“Weak Theory,” 438). Ironically, one clear result of this effort is to open the door to engage modernism with older (newly strange) forms of and responses to literary realism as ideal models for realist epistemologies. To the extent that concepts of modernity are enlarged and strategically weakened for modernism and modernist studies, we want to raise the question of whether the very concept of modernity remains a serviceable concept for critical thinking without its strong positive value association and what that might mean for concepts of modernity and for modernist studies especially.
Does modernity (always? only? still? really?) mean feats of strength? In other words, pace Bruno Latour, did modernism ever really mean winning modernity? What we mean here is a sense of modernity that involves thinking about critical-epistemological-historical dangers. Does it make sense to redescribe modernity as a network of precarity, risk, or a strategically selected bundle of objects tied together strongly by weak relations? Is the network a difference engine that alerts us to the risks of connection? Or does it merely put a value-positive spin on general notions of homogenized connectivity within and across modernity? The modest proposal we offer is that the modern and its cognates organize a form of questioning about connection and disconnection. The faded fortunes of the so-called Postmodern hypothesis—as much a consequence of changing fashion or critical mission fatigue as anything else—call for more conceptual spadework. In other words, more theory, not less. As the special issue demonstrates, there is a marked resurgence of its base concept, the basis concept of the Modern, a return to the modern cognate and the associated questions it organizes. The Postmodern always pointed to a kind of legitimation struggle, an indetermination between the marginal and the hyper, between superseding and amplifying, or a distending/mutation of critical ambition and legitimacy as well as a covert exercise in sweeping, preemptive conclusions and overarching conceptual mastery. That is, the question for us is this one: does the prefix post- stretch the concept of modernity to its limits or perform its supreme, unending plasticity? The latter, we submit.
Read Close, Hustle Hard
Does this captious, confusingly vexed word at issue still have any explanatory power? Can we have the modern without modernism or modernity or modernization? Rather than multiplying compound, adjectival nouns or proposing alternate prefixes (neo-, meta-, hyper-, inter-, intra-, post-post-, and so on), we need to think more about the suffix. With the modern, we have spent too much time on beginnings—the post, the pre - and too little on endings, the “-ism,” “-ity,” and “-ization.” The prefixes supply modulations of the concept—forms of insurance, redundant forms and varieties that shore up its total gestalt; the suffixes, the bound morphemes, it turns out, shore up its very substance and condition.
With the modern, there may be a choice—the doctrine, belief, or philosophy, like idealism or realism, that may be rejected— or, as the special issue suggests, the modern may be a phenomenon to be described like magnetism, volcanism, hypnotism, a matter of observation or susceptibility not for consent or consensus. The suffixes “-ity” and “-ism” are cognates and can work in functionally identical ways. Consider Christianity and Judaism in this connection; two modifiers that do much the same thing. One, “-ity,” is more conducive to plurality. In that sense, we find that the special issue takes for granted modernity’s high connectivity and conceptual conductivity as it refuses to entertain modernity’s sense of disconnection. Twitchy and switchy, modernity disconnects grand theories of connection. While “-ity” and “-ism” are not the only suffixes that can be used to nominalize in English—unlike “-ness”—the suffixes are decidedly agentive. Words such as these, as the OED puts it, are agentive “not merely as the agent noun of verbs...and in association with nouns of action or function . . . on the analogy of these, in a multitude of terms, . . . which designate the professed followers of some leader or school, the professional devotees of some principle, or the practitioners of some art.” The suffix “-ity” expresses a state or condition. An “-ist” is “a person who practices some art or method, or who prosecutes, studies, or devotes himself to some science, art, or branch of knowledge,” “an adherent or professor of some creed, doctrine, system, or art, which is usually designated by a cognate –ism,” “denoting one whose profession or business it is to have to do with the thing or subject in question”; “a person [in short] who practices some art or method, or who prosecutes, studies, or devotes himself to some science, art, or branch of knowledge.” A balloonist, an orientalist; a classicist, a mediævalist; an optimist, a pessimist: the last two, most crucially, perhaps. Is the modernist an adherent of modernism, the way a balloonist is devotee of ballooning, or more akin to the way an optimist is a devotee of optimism? The Modern and its cognates are not only fuzzy or open concepts in the philosophical sense. They also nominate a strong form of value bias and its management.
This is the sense of “-ist” that we wish to emphasize here: the “-ist” that names someone who owns, manages, or administers: the capitalist; the industrialist; the modernist; the moralist. We talk about nouns possessed by their own agencies not by the fact of possession or ownership but by piloting the flows of value—that this activity is the nominated event. And, by extension, here we might think of modernism as the substantive implied by modernize, such as historicism is the substantive implicated by historicize. What make modern elements modern is only their specific articulation of what is the just now. There is no modern before the modern because it’s the nomination which makes a bundle of thematic elements sensible (legible, visible, detectable) as modern. The cognate suffix “-ism” from the Latin “-ismus” is no less agentive. Modernism modernizes—or, more precisely—has been and will continue to modernize. Again, according to the OED, “-ism” has a “more strictly expressed” sense of completion than “-ist”: “the finished act or [the] thing done … naming the process, or the completed action, or its result: criticism, embolism, magnetism, organism.” Modernism is like all these things. Modernist is singular; modernity, plural; or potentially so; the relation being cybernetic. Is modern itself a value positive or a value negative? Bracket the related but separate notion of the contemporary— sensing together at the same time—the implication being that the modern and the contemporary organize different weak questions and risks about untimeliness. The answer depends on the value of being up-to-date—the precarious value of being, or perhaps just being a modernist—just now.
Notes for Madelyn Detloff
 Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–459, 438.
 Martin F. Manalansan IV, “The Stuff of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives,” Radical History Review no. 120 (2014): 94–107.
 Virginia Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall,” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, ed. Susan Dick (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989), 83–89, 84.
 William Butler Yeats, The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats. Volume XIII: A Vision: The Original 1925 Version, ed. Catherine E. Paul and Margaret Mills Harper (New York: Scribner, 2013), 148.
 Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, “Introduction,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 1–25, 12.
 Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling, 123–151, 124.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins,” in Touching Feeling, 93-121.
 See Ngọc Loan Trần, “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” in The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail at Showing Up for Each Other in the Fight for Freedom, ed. Mia McKenzie (Oakland, CA: BGD Press, 2016): 59-63; and Sian Ferguson, “Calling In: A Quick Guide on When and How.”
 Grace Lavery, “On Being Criticized,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 499–516, 509, 510. On Woolf, see Jane Marcus, “A Very Fine Negress,” in Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004): 24-58; and Maren Tova Linett, Modernism, Feminism, and Jewishness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). On Stein, see Wanda Van Dusen, “Portrait of a National Fetish: Gertrude Stein's ‘Introduction to the Speeches of Maréchal Pétain (1942),” Modernism/modernity 3, no. 3 (1996): 69-92.
 José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
 Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Network: Faulkner’s Transpacific Reparations,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 587–602.
Notes for David Sherman
 Charlie Chaplin, City Lights (Criterion Collection, 2013 ).
 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 170.
 See Mladen Dolar, “Comedy and Its Double,” in Stop That Comedy! On the Subtle Hegemony of the Tragic in Our Culture, ed. Robert Pfaller (Wien: Sonderzahl, 2005) 181-209; Robert Pfaller, “The Familiar Unknown, the Uncanny, the Comic: The Aesthetic Effects of the Thought Experiment,” in Lacan: The Silent Partners, ed. Slavoj Žižek (New York: Verso, 2006) 198-216; Alenka Zupancic, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008). See also Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 168.
 Charlie Chaplin, The Kid (Criterion Collection, 2016 ). See also Chaplin’s boxing scenes in The Champion, 1915.
 See Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?,” trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs 7, no. 1 (1981) 41-55.
 Michael North, Machine-age Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922, rpt. London: Penguin, 1992), 82.
Notes for Kate Stanley
 Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Network: Faulkner’s Transpacific Reparations,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 587-602, 587.
 Kate Stanley, “Affect and Emotion: James, Dewey, Tomkins, Damasio, Massumi, Spinoza,” The Palgrave Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism, eds. Donald R. Wehrs and Thomas Blake (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 100. My essay builds on the work of Adam Frank (the co-editor with Eve Kosofky Sedgwick of Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader ) who establishes Tomkins’s indebtedness to James in Transferential Poetics: From Poe to Warhol (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).
 Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59.
 William James, Writings, 1902–1910 (New York: Library of America, 1987), 491.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 123-51, 145.
 On James’s neurasthenia and depression see Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007) and Isabelle Stengers, “William James: An Ethics of Thought?,” Radical Philosophy 157 (2009): 9–17.
 Benjamin Kahan, “Volitional Etiologies: Toward a Weak Theory of Etiology, ” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 551–68, 553.
 Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 98.
Notes for Scott Herring
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–151, 145.
 Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 368, 32.
 Jeffrey J. Williams, qtd. in Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–459, 439.
 Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 42.
 Jennifer Wicke, “Appreciation, Depreciation: Modernism’s Speculative Bubble,” Modernism/modernity 8, no. 3 (2001): 389–403, 394.
 Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 556; Michael Reck, “A Conversation between Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg,” Evergreen Review 55 (1968): 27–29, 84, 84.
 See Michael Rosenthal, review of The Pound Era, New York Times, March 26, 1972: BR7, BR34.
 Gabriel Hankins, “The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 569-585, 570; Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517-549, 542.
 Kathleen Woodward, At Last, the Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980), x; Kathleen Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 188.
 Marianne Moore, “What Are Years?,” in What Are Years (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 1.
 Charles Henri Ford, “Life used to be just,” “Haiku Autobiography” notebook, 1994, Series 2, Box 12, Charles Henri Ford Papers, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
 Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53, 749.
Notes for Yan Tang
 Jacques Derrida, On the Name, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 12.
 Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 455.
 Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz,“The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA, 123, no. 3 (2008): 737-48, 742.
 I am grateful to my colleague Kevin Tunnicliffe, who first pointed out the concept to me in our discussion of how to explain modernism to students.
 Thu Suong Ngyuen and Brendan Maxcy, “Wicked Problems,” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation, ed. Bruce B. Frey (Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 2018), http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506326139.n745.
 Susan Stanford Friedman, “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism,” Modernism/modernity, vol. 8, no. 3 (2001): 493-513, 499.
 Jennifer Wicke, “Appreciation, Depreciation: Modernism’s Speculative Bubble,” Modernism/modernity, vol. 8, no. 3 (2001): 389-403, 394.
 Arthi Vadde, “Scalability,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus, Volume 2, no. 4
Notes for Aaron Jaffe and Michael F. Miller
 Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York, Macmillan, 1981), 125–26, 126.
 Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. (2018): 437–59, 439, 438, 440.
 Wendy Hui Kyun Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016), 25.
 Boris Groys, Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media, trans. Carsten Strathausen (New York, Columbia University Press, 2012), 10.
 Gabriel Hankins, “The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 569-85, 573.
 Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39 (2013): 732-53, 732.
 David M. Berry and Alexander R. Galloway, “A Network is a Network is a Network: Reflections on the Computational and the Societies of Control.” Theory. Culture, and Society 33, no. 4 (2015): 151–172.
 Ronald E. Day, Indexing It All: The Subject in the Age of Documentation, Information, and Data (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 19.
 Steven Connor, “Epilogue: Modernism after Postmodernism,” in The Cambridge History of Modernism, ed. Vincent Sherry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 820–834, 832.
 “Ist,” OED Online. Oxford University Press.
 “Ism,” OED Online. Oxford University Press.