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Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part II

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Several of this latest batch of responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory engage not only the original issue, but also the first set of responses that we ran last month—and we plan on  keeping this conversation going. Would you like to be part of it?

Debra Rae Cohen

David Ayers: Weak Theory or Bad Ideas?

We have lately been told that the “independence of the media has been compromised in some unprecedented ways,” that there has been “an implicit force of censorship . . . across the country” and a “suspension of any attempt to offer balanced reporting,” that “Soviet forms of censorship and control” are at work, and critical voices have been suppressed because ‘the mainstream media enterprises will not publish them.” Not, of course, the words of Donald Trump or Kellyanne Conway, intended to promote blue-collar self-pity, but of Judith Butler in Precarious Life (2004), a collection of essays concerning the “mourning” following the “violence” of the 2001 terrorist attacks on US targets, and the “violence” of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[1] This book was met with indifference on the page by Butler’s supporters—Heather Love remarked that “the book sometimes feels under-motivated, and Butler’s linking of specific political points to reflections on Freudian melancholia or Foucault’s notion of governmentality or Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of ‘the face’ does not help matters”—while off page and outside the United States the collection was regarded with disdain as a thinly-informed example of American egoism.[2]

Setting aside Paul Saint-Amour’s useful itemization of approaches to the theory of weakness, I would like to pause for a moment over this question of the weakness of “theory” itself, as institutionalized in US universities, and imagining itself as the conscience of the United States and—usually with no noticeable shift of gears—as the conscience and consciousness of the whole world. If we are to say that “theory,” as epitomized by the investment of the intellectual-industrial complex in Judith Butler as a central figure, is “weak,” it is necessary to bracket the overtones of Nietzsche who, as Sara Crangle reminds us, constantly characterized  his contemporaries in terms of their “weakness” and “illness” as opposed to the “strength” and “health” of the superman, suggesting—basically—that bad ideas were rooted in the organic deficiencies, and therefore the psychologies, of individuals and of races.[3] The question of the psychology of weakness—with its connotation in the Nietzschean account of retreat and willing submission, its metaphorical reliance on slavery and disability—cannot really be allowed to re-enter an examination of the weakness of theory even as the very concept of “weak theory” nudges us in that direction. While one account of Butler’s book seeks to steer us towards the “paradoxical hopelessness of critique” as if to strongly reclaim the weakness, even though the term “hopelessness” suggests as much simple uselessness as any sort of technical, pathetically resonant un-Bloch-ishness—it is Love’s laconic “doesn’t help,” a sort of Beckettian shrug, which more appropriately gives rhetorical focus to the question of weak theory.[4] For theory cannot properly stage or claim its own weakness, though it may appear to enjoy the attempt to do so.

Liberal-Intellectual Hegemony

In this context, Butler is the epitome of contemporary “theory” as the informal hegemony of US-based liberal-intellectual practices centered on elite universities and constructing its appearance of authority from European master-thinkers. Love’s “doesn’t help” is a passing sigh in a short review, but it marks precisely enough the symptoms of weak theory—the appropriation of Freud to psychologize politics, of Foucault to legitimize a shift from economics to the malign structure of governance, of Levinas as a safe way to restore the subject and make a mystery of otherness without the embarrassment of appearing to go through Hegel and Heidegger. These things, it seems, “don’t help” when theory attempts to account for real-world events such as the 2001 attacks or the Iraq War. I quite like Love’s implicit approach—that it is not necessary to argue this point or be detained any further by Butler’s attempt at the topic— but note, too, the question that is left unstated: what happens in the wake of seemingly defunct strong theory, to the form of the belief in progress of Hegel and Marx, the analytical and practical effectiveness of Lenin, the vituperative certainties of the anti-capitalist rhetoric—as well as the demanding literary theory—of Trotsky? What happens when theory no longer makes a clear demand for communism and a world state, accompanied by a confidence in how those things are to be brought about?

Those certainties may not be coming back any time soon, but in the meantime the present posture of “weak theory” has some characteristics which we can begin to itemize. Here I will outline two: 1) the contradiction between deference to the ‘other’ and unacknowledged universalism; 2) the mise-en-abyme of authority. The first is an objective contradiction of the implicitly universal claims of ethics and the identification by universalistic ethics of the recognition of the non-universality of ethics as a sort of prime directive. How this has come about is a history that is well enough known and would be a long time in the re-telling. The rhetorical effect of this at a performative level is the hazy manner in which weak theory simultaneously claims and renounces its universality. In Butler’s book, this is evidenced in passages dealing with the notion that “we have to shore up the first-person point of view, and preclude from the telling accounts that might involve a decentering of the narrative ‘I’ within the international political domain” (Precarious Life, 6–7). The direct object normally required by “preclude” is absent, but we are told that “this decentering is experienced as part of the wound that we have suffered . . . so we cannot establish that position” (7). Butler asks, in the wake of the events of 2001 and 2004: “Can we find another meaning, and another possibility, for the decentering of the first-person narrative within the global framework?” Butler announces the pathos of weakness in the form of the wound and the loss of the first person, but what follows is a chain of first-person commentary, with more “we” than “I,” in which Butler mainly presumes to speak for the United States, sometimes for the “First World,” at times for an abstract “I,” at times just as herself, agonizing over newspaper and television reports, but never as the class fraction with its special role in theoretical discourse internationally that “theory” represents, and of which theory—in its Althusserian avatar—might expect an account.

Space does not permit me to elaborate, except to say that this site where the customary I/we of a certain brand of theory attempts to situate itself geopolitically as the American “subject,” the results are unconvincing, certainly not universal, and strangely embedded in an advertised weakness—the United States as “vulnerable,” the media as enemy—which more commonly appear as the object of critique rather than as critique itself. This manifestation of the question “who speaks and for whom?” converges with the second rhetorical trait of weak theory I have identified, the invocation of absent authority in a strange performative contradiction of an anti-foundationalism which seeks—unavoidably— to make claims which might refer to something other than the author’s own formulations. Almost as a matter of routine in recent times, one of the foundations evoked is Levinas, and this is the case in Butler’s book. Although the major works of Levinas have been continuously in print, in recent decades in inexpensive editions, and although his influence is long-established and there has been an abundance of scholarly commentary, it seems it is always necessary to explain Levinas from scratch, and we are repeatedly introduced as if for the first time to his conception of alterity, the notion of the visage, and so on. This despite the fact that the modelling of alterity very early on received substantial critique in “Violence et métaphysique,” Jacques Derrida’s 1964 essay reproduced in L’écriture et le difference.[5] Among other things, Derrida put under severe pressure the logically implicit symmetry of the I and the other, “acknowledged nowhere” in Levinas, which contradicts his notion of ethical dissymmetry. Commentators have argued that Levinas’s later work, such as Éthique comme philosophie première (1992), was formulated in response to Derrida’s “radical objections.”[6] This “symmetry” risks just plunging us back into the Hegelian philosophy of alterity from which anti-foundational theory requires an escape, but the need for some sort of solution leads it to pass over this field of implications, and Levinas appears in often long quotation as a kind of modern literary authority, in much the role Matthew Arnold or F. R. Leavis might have fulfilled in the past.

Theory as Combover

Writing on modernism will often use gobbets of theory from miscellaneous sources to announce its themes; the scholarship generally follows, and it is this rather than the incompletely reasoned premises which are its substance. Yet this disappearance of authority in the moment in which it is invoked to legitimize an inquiry does seem like a weakness when, as in Butler’s case, theory attempts in a “hopeless” fashion to get a handle on international affairs. Amusingly enough, the notion of “weak theory” is itself susceptible to this, grounded, as it may seem to be, in the “pensiero debole” announced in the title of the 1983 essay collection edited by Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti. If we look here for an origin, though, we confusingly find ourselves referred even further back by Vattimo to an even earlier essay of his, “Verso un’ontologia del declino” (1981).[7] This was an essay on anti-foundationalism in Heidegger which paraphrased Sein und Zeit’s account of “weak being,” and advocated an “ontology of decline” in response to Heidegger’s notion of the hiddenness of being, in which we “rethink continuously—as a sort of therapeutic exercise—the nexus of foundation and its lack announced in Being and Time.”[8] The concerns of this remote past with a hermeneutical reclaiming of Heideggerian nihilism seem distant from what we now mean by “weak theory”—even if pensiero debole seems somehow foundational of what appears in this early Vattimo account to be a sort of semi-foundationalism—yet when we track forward to Rovatti’s attempt to reclaim and remap pensiero debole in Inattualità del pensiero debole (2011) we find in place a benign metanarrative (the book is an interview)  in which the highly technical analysis of Heidegger and Nietzsche merely bobs beneath the surface. “Weak thought . . .  is a ‘positive thought’ which proposes the practice of a minimal ethic: a line of resistance against every type of new barbarity, where we can muster so as not to give up the right to be citizens.”[9]

Which is all very nice, of course. Does weak theory then emerge as a Trumpian combover of bad ideas? What I am suggesting here, albeit in outline, is an attention to the performance and rhetoric of theory in our own immediate contexts as cultural analysts, which I have only begun to itemize here, against the background of situations that cannot be mastered from campuses, using tools that come to most of us easily: an awareness of the history which limits our thought and a healthy scepticism towards grandiosity and overclaim.

 

Holly A. Laird: Notes Toward a Feminist Politics of “Weak Theory”

I come here with notes, but without absolute conclusions.

            . . . .

            I need to understand how a place on the map is also a place in history . . .

            . . . .

Begin, though, not with a continent or a country or a house, but with

the geography closest-in. The body.

—Adrienne Rich (1984)[1]

The moment I wrote “weak” in the title above—a possibly self-aggrandizing and offensively diminishing mock-up of Rich’s “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”—I saw my egregious mistakes. “Weak,” as in “she”—as in “lack” or “hole”—“sub-”? But how about a compromise? (I wondered). Would it be possible to take a cue at this late date from Jacques Derrida’s most graphic signal, deplored by publishers, albeit a current fixture of computer keyboards: place it under erasure, for anyone to see, acknowledging its inescapable, if elusive, prevalence in the linguistic condition?[2]  “Vulnerability,” “precarity,” fragility (“bold vulnerability”—isn’t that the name a partner of mine once tumbled to?): vulnerability presupposes subject “positionality” (having branched out from Rich’s “location,” Nancy Hartung and Sandra Harding’s “standpoint,” et alia—see also Yan Tang’s response), a kind of balancing process between threat and subjectivity.[3]  Can I simply agree, then, to [ ]agree with this array of special issue essays on “weak theory” and their responses? It seems not entirely, as a thinking, conversing, writing person-age of specific academic positionalities . . . :

These contributions constitute (necessarily) selective retrievals of various sorts and of a postmodern kind (pace anti-postmodernists): retrievals enacted with irony, an interrogatory or irreverent eye, an assumption of the pastnesses in these presents and presence of these pasts. Mathew Arnold is only the most obvious of these retrievals from library and internet archives; from continental Italian thought of the 1980s; from century-old cybernetics; from the (nineteenth-century) fin de siècle; from Virginia Woolf.[4] While I do not read these essays as either un-ideological or merely positivist, their choices of reparation and extension dance over or around pregnant gaps. Both “responses” by Tang and Aaron Jaffe/Michael F. Miller point to “danger” signs of “strong” theorizing and “wicked[er] problems” than the contributors deal with directly—

Though I’m more inclined to agree with a “global capitalism” perspective (Tang), insofar as acknowledgment occurs of an argument’s (and/or writer’s) positionality within the specific, locally situated socio-economic academic institutions that dually enable and obstruct said-argument (could the MLA develop guidelines, one wonders?), I’m less inclined to think that a measure of “positivism” (Jaffe/Miller), which masquerades as a bad word in lit-crit-theory discourse shouldn’t be taken as intrinsic to these writers’ socio-linguistic conditions (a question: did Jaffe/Miller intend for it to remain bad in their “response”?).

—but it is other earlier purportedly “weak” forms of thinking that I found myself missing: the repeatedly unacknowledged, yet frequently tapped pragmatist vein (but see Kate Stanley’s response), the unadmitted or simply ignored affinities with postmodern theorists (Andreas Huyssen, Jean-François Lyotard, Linda Hutcheon), and, to (re)turn to my response’s inaugural trope,[5]  

The Body”

(“the meatspace” of Madelyn Detloff’s lol aside)—not that it is not always already gone, lingering not even as a perceptible pressure in the words that ignore, emanate from, and seek to return, by turns, mimicking rhythm, motion, and tactility without any such things. (“L’écriture féminine” gone too, lost in translation.) Even in its absence, “the body” is inextricable (is it not?), as Rich further suggested, from our languages and from its inscriptions in material, demographic geographies and their socially situated cultures and institutions (“Notes,” 215­­–16)? Is it “here”? A reader might pause to imagine the hard work that produced these articles, even shudder, to think of the labor preceding them in the hours, days, months, years, and decades of their writers’ lives, in those writers’ vast reading of previous writers, the latter vastly well-read as well, etc. After that, however, the play, a release, the steady or rising heart-beat of a game-family of emerging language, reread, self-reflexively, mobilized.  Then again, who will read, care, or value it—anyone? and at what costs? “The bodies,” then, of con-text, con-tiguity (Jane Gallop), preamble, postludic re-drafting editing, and impacts, at least tropologically.[6] But what of “the body in pain” (Elaine Scarry)—speechless, alienating, de-voiced, “sticky” (Sara Ahmed)—where’s that?[7]

And what about “the abstraction” and the Cartesian binaries: have these retreated so easily, and if not, have they no relation to “meatspace” (Rich; Susan Bordo)?[8] Paul Saint-Amour begins, tongue-in-cheek (he later makes the irony explicit), with “modernism” presented as a muscular bundle of  “steep critiques of modernity, energetic convention busting . . . aesthetic strength through iconoclasm and strenuous innovation.”[9] It is, as the “cloying orthodoxy” would have it, “strong people exhibiting strength.” The reader is invited by Saint-Amour to revisit the (already much-revisited) definition(s) of modernism and to embrace its recent weakenings in sociology, physics, cybernetics, and affect theory.[10] He invokes the “call” of recent precursive critics “to retire” two manifestations of “strong modernism” in particular: (1) of anti-ideological “autonomy” and (2) of “heroic demystif[ication] of ideology”—in other words, to shrug aside both the “either” and the “or” of the old (i.e., twentieth-century) aestheticism versus politics debate positions (“Weak Theory,” 439). Yet the genre of “criticism” even in a “post-critique” frame apparently benefits from body-language—enabling an argument to be made. The “strong man” becomes in this rhetoric a straw man (but see Saint-Amour for much more),  shape-shifting from one article to the next. Not that I have anything against undocumented workers (au contraire)—just curious about an implied premise: what constitutes “strong theory” per se?

What counts as “strong” includes, not only one side of the “weakened” distinctions Saint-Amour notes, but also the “grand narratives” (so-called by Lyotard and fellow postmodern theorists), “closed systems” (Detloff), and patriarchy. While, happily, never suspecting, speculating for, or nailing either a formalist or ideological stone to damn their precursors, none of the special-issue essays spends print-space critiquing a prior act of “strong” theorizing or criticism. Potential targets thus receive no re-presentation in these pages. Something may be lost in the process,

but how lost? These incidental, temporary losses let these writers get on with it; lets those who have more to say about those targets get on with it, elsewhere. When it comes to writing/speech/thought, “comprehensiveness,” “definitiveness,” “universality” make little sense—except as definable terms, subjective dreams, branding claims, and overblown hyperbole.  

But “strong theory” thus becomes a “straw man”—strong rhetorical weakening device, fast-quipped dissing gesture, or flagrant name-calling. If reduction of some sort is another near-inevitability of the linguistic condition for self-declared “post-critiquers” and “critiquers” alike, straw men, dis-tancing, and name-calling are not in themselves “reparative” gestures. These recall the lesser sorts of alienating devices that stud interactions in-the-flesh among scholars—like gossip, rarely factually anchored or reliable, uncontextualized. As it happens, it was in conversation that I first encountered “strong theory” . . . :

Con-versation

In the late 1970s and 1980s, when “high theory,” so-called, was captivating U.S. literary critics—pace Derrida et alia’s “anti-metaphysics” and “anti-theory,” Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo was no less invested than Derrida in Nietzsche and Heidegger’s writings, though he worked invisibly to most Anglo-American literary critics who had gravitated to “Paris”: he espoused “weak thought” (see Sara Crangle for more). (Since publishing his book The End of Modernity in 1985, Vattimo has frequently been associated, by the way, with the “postmodern.”)

“Strong theory” as well as “weak” are thus terms I first heard in conversations with Dick Rorty in the late 1980s. While himself a foundational thinker in the anti-foundationalist “weak theory” of post-World War II pragmatism (which strongly launched him out of departments of philosophy into a department of his own, much like Judith Butler subsequently at Berkeley with a new department of “rhetoric”), he nonetheless greatly preferred “strong theory” to pragmatic “weak theory” in literary criticism, unapologetically deflecting disciples in English away from pragmatism.

In Rorty’s view, Harold Bloom’s theory of “the anxiety of influence” constituted the sort of “strong theory” most deserving emulation by lit critics. (Could he possibly have been joking [Bloom? theorist of “the effete,” “weak,” “belated” and writer of obscure, gnostic-flavored stuff—or could Rorty have been intent, without saying as much, on revaluing precisely those dimensions of Bloom as “strong”?]—who knows? Any such humor went undetected.)  Rorty thus did pragmatism no favors when it came to ushering lit critics into this nuanced form of Jamesean, Deweyan, late Wittgensteinian interdisciplinarity; and “pragmatism” itself became a bad word.

“Pragmatism” has stayed so “weak” in that sense that it goes unmentioned in this special issue, though contributors frequently draw from its think-tank vocabularies of “context,” “the probable,” “specificity,” “contingency,” “provisionality,” et al. Tenaciously “useful,” this sort of weakness apparently cannot be put down: like our skins, re-turning on every side (again, see Stanley, for a living form of its theorizing).  

Con-versation. What to do about it? Even silence may be easily mis-read and responded to as if it were a powerful form of sneering. The “reparative” work even of the everyday kind (not even involving violence or mourning) is not easy.[11] Yet these things amid the steep decline of English, humanities, cultural studies, the University; these globally networked writings and writers with their associations and con-ferences, have never been so multiple, vast, dynamic, mobile, changeful, inclusive, open, university-and-city site-shifting. . . . But these same folks also: the ceaselessly institutionally beleaguered, public false-news media-battered, shamed-blamed-bullied . . . thoughtful, concerned, helpful, tireless workers of the classroom, teachers of an entire shamed-blamed-dismissed millennial generation et al.

A “new humility”—okay, but, argh, not “modesty” again. (Note to the vulnerable: “modesty” does not prevent rape).

A Fan of Punctuation—Hyphen and Slash, Colon and Dash:

If it is possible to inhabit the self-divided discourse of “weakness,” can it become possible to say, con-sensually, “both/and,” across many previously disputed divides? Both/and aestheticism and ideology; both/and theory and practice; both/and thought-writing/body-speech; both/and critical/personal; both/and strong and weak? Couldn’t the binaries bear some further doubling while also practicing—and/or letting friendly allies practice—the art of inhabiting the sites of underdogs and the not-yet unretrieved lost—those ever-retreating, ever-advancing edges of our knowledges?

“Doubling” or doubling back on the binary—followed by redoubling (i.e., tripling), then by multiplicational strategies for thinking through our binaries—with no one spot on the continuum, withal its disruptions, “succeeding” over or superseding what came before. When Aurora Leigh (aka Elizabeth Barrett Browning) called for socially constructed binaries to be rewritten as doubles—to produce the “twofold”—she began some hard work in which numerous modern feminist critics followed her: beginning by thinking, not in either-or, but in both-and, thereby recognizing not merely the relational and inter-relational connections between opposed extremities, but their frequent interchangeability.[12] Doubling had to be quadrupled, not merely because “doubling” is not enough, but because the “we” gave no sign of acknowledging racial and sexual differences—black and white, queer and straight, oppressively basic to the ways human creatures have constructed their us-them environments.[13] At last, “the world [had] split open” to acknowledge multiples.[14] One would think a plural “stronger” than the singular and the dual, but singular and dual retain their grasps through language, through “the body,” and through the I-other mental divide: double, then—both plural and single, both dual and multiple.

Take the feminist theory alluded to in the present “response,” for example. What does it mean? One can define it singularly—as activist intervention both on behalf of “women” in their lived and theorized diversities and as related to men and masculinities—or targeted analyses thereof. And, as academic feminism has multiplyingly defined itself since naming itself in the late 1970s: as analyses of interdisciplinary intersectionality.[15] Feminism is perceived as dually “strong”—a pointed critique of a-feminist as well as anti-feminist texts and theories—and “weak”—as frequently co- and collaboratively composed or coolly, historicizingly, sociologically, situationally descriptive and celebratory rather than fiercely critical—but with the latter also viewed as if it entailed “narrower,” less “expansive” thought structures than non-feminist types. Understood thus, its precedents are often ignored.

Feminists took lead roles in the hermeneutics of suspicion, finding an “essence” underlying every nominalist stone, though they fortunately survived that phase to write and theorize again, in part, thanks to the advent of “strong” queer, queering, querying theorists like Eve Kosofky Sedgwick and Butler. Aside from being transformative, why was their thought so strong? Because of its inscription in oppressed margins, in the material culture and historical moment of AIDS and the first lg, lgb, and lgbt movements in the university (for a parallel history of sexological etiologies, see Benjamin Kahan). Here was a set of activist theorists strengthened by the material urgencies to defend, include, and theorize the queer . . . Sedgwick and Butler did not, as it transpired, shirk “feminist” labeling of their theories, though for a time (thanks to anthology editors) they displaced prior feminist theorists in prominent theory anthologies. The “strongest” feminist negative critique, however, took place in the (humbling) venue of self-critique. Does “the new modesty” dare to be as vulnerable?

Amazing how much dirty work was accomplished for a while through self-critique intensifying into negative critique culminating in (what these special issue-ists agree with Sedgwick in calling) “paranoia”? The reader was no longer permitted to speak-write “women,” forbidden “black,” derided and cast aside for naming these or any other socially constructed categories. “Pluralism” as a slam did it in for the “multiple.” (Please, can we not revert, though, either to the “female” or to a presumptive “we”?) “Differences”—despite its inscription in the same as also other (Barbara Johnson, Sedgwick, et alia)—threw verbal bombs at anything with the slightest scent of the “common.”[16] A semantic coincidence—or a particularly instructive, reductive reification of others’ thought-writing? . . .

“My heart,” wrote Rich, “has been learning in a much more humble and laborious way, learning that feelings are useless without facts, that all privilege is ignorant to the core. . . . Once again, who is we? / This is the end of these notes but it is not an ending” (“Notes,” 226, 231).

 

Tim Wientzen: Strong Ecology, Weak Theory

“Weak theory” is a term that, by a weird trick of logic, inspires neither confidence nor disapproval, at least not at first blush. Who roots for the strong over the weak? Who in good conscience wants to see the hare beat the tortoise, or for Goliath to vanquish David? And yet, who would wear the badge of weakness without asserting that there is strength in debility? We root for the underdog because they have the fortitude and integrity that the strong lack. Behind the weakling Clark Kent there is a Superman. What is weak is either secretly strong, and vice versa, or neither is defensible.

Fortunately, “weak theory” does not ask us to pick sides in this way; it is, in fact, rather allergic to dogmas and injunctions. Emerging from a variety of disciplinary formations including psychoanalysis, sociology, and literary theory of the last fifteen years, weak theory appears in this special issue as a surprisingly broad scholarly orientation toward the objects and methodologies of literary study. Scholars will perhaps most easily ascertain the stakes of weakness as a theoretical category by contrasting it with “strong theory”—analytical frames, canonical formations, or methodological mandates that demand certain rigidities of practice. Strong theories entail economy and expansiveness; they seek to explain a wide geography of phenomena through an inflexible set of presumptions or injunctions. In her engagement with Silvan Tompkins in Touching Feeling (2003), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explained that paranoia is the ne plus ultra of strong theory since it blots out “any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand” (131).[1] So, if one thinks, for example, that lizard people are secretly running the world, or that the moon landings were faked, any information that does not conform to these theories must be wrong and is deemed unworthy of consideration. In short, strong theory typically limits the kinds of questions that can be asked or knowledge that can be produced. Such theories are not, in short, flexible enough to adapt to change or to the unforeseen. Weak theory, on the other hand, describes a variety of critical endeavors in which non-totalizing or provisional claims might predominate. Where strong theory looks attempts to cast an antiseptic light on what lurks in the depths, below the threshold, weak theory thrives on surface and its messes.

The Capaciousness of the Weak

As framed by Paul Saint-Amour’s beautiful introduction of this issue, weak theory offers (at least) two important resources to scholars of modernism in that it describes the nature of the field of modernist studies and provides a language for new and emerging methodologies. The first of these tasks is perhaps the more straightforward of the two, and will come as little surprise to anyone who has been closely engaged with the field over the last several decades. In much the same way that Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz’s “The New Modernist Studies” (2008) suggested that the field was undergoing an expansion along geographical and methodological axes, Saint-Amour suggests that the field of modernist studies was, from the beginning, beholden to modernism’s own weak self-definition—that, indeed, the “vitality, generativity, and populousness” of the field of modernist studies has increased as the sovereign hold of any of its central terms has receded.[2] Since what “counts” as modernism has always been weakly defined, it allowed the field to take shape and evolve in dynamic ways. And the work in this issue certainly reflects this commitment to the generative weakness of periodization, among other potentially strong categories of definition. With articles ranging from Matthew Arnold’s criticism to the work of contemporary writer Kate Zambreno, as much space here is dedicated to writers who fall outside of the conventional 1900–1945 time frame as those who fall squarely within it. But this issue of periodization, geography, or canon is really a minor matter. Where weak theory offers its most direct challenge to the field is in how it conceives of literary critical method. It is here, I think, that some caution is in order lest all strong methods and categories fall prey to the weak.

The methodological issues under examination in this collection are animated in large part by metacritical debates over the last fifteen years by Sedgwick, Rita Felski, and others that have challenged literary study’s longstanding commitment to “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Against what Saint-Amour calls “neo-Marxist cultural materialism and political formalism,” with its injunction to unveil structures and ideology, this issue sees the virtue in critical projects that are, shall we say, less audacious in their attempts to capture the Real (“Weak Theory,” 454). Theorists of weakness, Saint-Amour writes, share an interest in “the proximate, the provisional, and the probabilistic” (440). Theirs are critical models that make limited claims—indeed, which see the virtue of such limits. For example, Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde’s article, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism” reads the affinities between Virginia Woolf and the contemporary writer Kate Zambreno, who collectively help theorize the status of “amateur critic.”[3] This is a mode of criticism that stands outside of the halls of power and does affective work largely unfelt and unseen by those at home within the institutions of modernity. The connection between Woolf and Zambreno is a weak one, and their shared endeavor itself points to a theorization of the weakness necessarily produced by the strong institutionalization of modern life. Each article in this collection participates in this project, often by showing how writers defined the virtues of weakness (as in Grace Lavery’s reading of Matthew Arnold, Benjamin Kahan’s analysis of etiology in sexological discourses, and Sara Crangle’s essay on Anna Mendelssohn) or in showing what can be attained through attending to weak social and disciplinary ties (as in Gabriel Hankins’s article on digital humanities).

To my mind, the methodologies on display here all offer viable ways of doing literary criticism that don’t depend on the strong theories or historicism that have been so influential in literary studies from Frederic Jameson onward. And yet, the embrace of weakness does leave me a little concerned, particularly as it affects one term long central to the field of modernist studies: totality. Virtually every essay in this issue uses the words “totality” and “singularity” in conjunction with the strong theories they oppose. In his introduction, Saint-Amour writes, “I wonder whether the weakening drift of modernist studies means giving up on totality as a category, either normatively or descriptively, and if so whether we’ve thought sufficiently about the analytical and political costs of doing so” (“Weak Theory,” 454). Given the importance “totality” has played in the history of literary criticism, particularly in Georg Lukács’ antipathy toward certain iterations of modernist practice, it is worth examining what might be lost in abandoning it as a literary critical term, particularly in our current historical moment.

Modernity, Climate, and Strong Theory

Consider, for example, the problem of how to define “modernity” without recourse to strong theory. Why do we do we even need a theory of modernity, you might reasonably ask. After all, modernity looks and means so many different things in different place and at different times. Do we really need a strong theory of a modernity as a unified historical phenomenon? To reference Jameson, commonly thought to be the patron saint of literary critical strong theory, do we need to see modernity as a singular phenomenon? To this I would answer not that we need strong theories of modernity as an economic or cultural phenomenon, per se, but that it is hard to think of modernity as anything but singular and total as an ecological fact. Modernity may often be multiple or provisional in a cultural sense (and thus necessitate what Saint-Amour calls “the subjunctive, the speculative, and the counterfactual”), but we do well to remember that theory also has to grapple with the singular earth we all inhabit, and the role that modernity has played and continues to play in its warming (“Weak Theory,” 444). “Modernization,” that old strong term, still matters if we want the critical work we do to be responsive to the future. How else do we think about, read for, and engage with the problem of ecological degradation if not under the sign of the singular and the total—the planet, the species, the Anthropocene, etc.? After all, isn’t failure to think in terms of totalities itself the root of our ecological crisis? Without the strong theory made possible by thinking in terms of totalities, weakness cannot do its work.

It is worth noting, however, that weak theory does not itself demand a refusal of totalities or strong theory in every case, as Saint-Amour notes. Weak theory and its related methodologies of criticism no doubt reflect a deeper dissatisfaction with the affective efficacy of established critical models than it does with categories like totality. We might consider the pragmatic appeal of these new critical models—the ways they enable more affectively satisfying forms of political engagement than the hermeneutics of suspicion can do alone. As Wai Chee Dimock writes in her essay on Faulkner, reading through the “long-distance, not always effective, though sometimes surprisingly illuminating truths, happening as much by chance as by design, traces of the unactualized past can be carried into the future, and unredressed injuries can be given alternate outlines.”[4] To stick with ecology and the strong theory of climate change, imagine how such a weak methodology might make available to contemporary readers modernism’s own efforts to assess the costs of modernity on the future of the planet or the species. Think, just for example, of the apocalyptic imagination as it manifests in mid-century modernism and the peril presented by atomic weaponry. The real threat of species destruction gets articulated in these texts, and though the structures of feeling may only map onto those of climate change “by chance,” as Dimock says, they nevertheless develop affective structures that may be useful to us as scholars today. Weak theoretical methods allow us to put these accidents to use now. Or think of early science fiction works like E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), which imagines a world where structural inertia and hyper-mediation threaten the future of the species. What might a text like this tell us about the spiritual and literary resources that modernists invented to answer the demands of their own moment? Such a project demands a “weak” methodology in so far as it sees the connection between then and now as unanticipated and of limited generalizability. Such critical projects would require discarding the strong historicisms to which we have long been accustomed in favor critical agendas that can mobilize our affective capacities anew.

Strong theory has its virtues, to be sure. Even paranoia, with its limited political efficacy, is operational. If we live with the paranoia of ecological collapse—and I certainly do—then this strong theory does political work that is utterly necessary. Indeed, it is political work that might be hard to motivate by a weak theory alone. And yet weakness may be indispensable to the work that lies ahead of an ecologically-minded version of literary studies. My own interest in ecology and the strong theory it demands is just one point of contact with weak theory, and I offer it as a way of thinking through the entailments of weakness. My own sense is that modernism has a lot to teach us about the condition of life now, and if there is one thing that most impresses me in this special issue, it is an appeal throughout to methodological orientations that do more than critique the past—indeed, that might allow us to establish lines of communication between then and now, and project into the future.

 

Elizabeth M. Sheehan: Strong and Weak Repetitions

One of the accusations launched against recent scholarship that proposes alternatives to critique is that such work is fashionable: timely, stylish, and insubstantial.[1] This charge is both correct and misleading. It is correct in that debates about method currently feature prominently in academic knowledge production in literary studies, which does share some of the logic and rhythms of fashion. It is misleading, however, in that it encourages simplistic distinctions between au courant scholarship that abets capitalism and the more long-standing, sober, politically committed work that opposes it.

Paul Saint-Amour also reorients us away from such distinctions when he responds to Max Brzezinski’s claim that “the new modernist studies” has transformed “modernism” into an apolitical “brand name.”[2] Saint-Amour admits that if the field accepts a weak theory of modernism, then it’s possible 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). He proposes, however, that it is self-defeating to oppose capitalism “with its death-grip on repetition and dissemination” by “mass-produc[ing] the same findings and refusals we’ve been cranking out for decades, multiplying these across the landscape in a strange parody of the thing we wish to challenge” (455.) Indeed, given what Saint-Amour describes as the “dynamotropic” nature of academic knowledge production, such repetition is often framed in terms of intervention and innovation (445). Instead of continuing on such a course, Saint-Amour says, “we may need to shift registers” towards weak theory and weak understandings of modernism (455).

Saint-Amour’s focus on capitalism as repetition, however, reveals how difficult it is to know whether or not weak theory accomplishes that needed shift. Both strong and weak approaches are, after all, invested in repetition. Gianni Vattimo aligns himself with Heidegger’s “repetition of metaphysics [which] does not seek to accept metaphysics as it is.”[3] Repetition also characterizes the essays in the special issue. Sara Crangle examines how Anna Mendelssohn recasts the model of the poet maudite. Grace Lavery acknowledges that she—and, by implication, many contemporary scholars—repeats Matthew Arnold’s approach to criticism as a reaction to being and feeling criticized. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde reveal that Kate Zambreno’s “amateur criticism” echoes Virginia Woolf’s critique of institutional knowledge production. Benjamin Kahan calls upon scholars to recover and redeploy early twentieth century weak etiological approaches to sexuality. Wai Chee Dimock’s account of how subsequent writers take up William Faulkner’s weakly reparative gestures describes a series of repeated if varied attempts at redress.

Such repetitions resemble the rhythm of fashion, which modifies past forms to generate the new. Indeed, if for Vattimo repetition is what weakens, then fashion and weak thought seem to converge in Saint-Amour’s gloss on Vattimo’s vision of social transformation: “weakness would be the strait gate through which newness would enter” (“Weak Theory,” 444). In short, we can find multiple connections between the fashion system and weak as well as strong theoretical approaches. But my point is not that we are all inevitably and equally ensnared in the iron-clad mechanisms of academic capitalism. Rather, it is that most debates about method (critique or postcritique, paranoid or reparative, strong or weak) are poor proxies for conversations about the impact and implications of our scholarship, including but not only its relationship to capitalism. Assessing what our work does involves a finer-grained analysis of how various methods are used and by whom. It also requires more 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.

Weak Theory, Strong Institutions

I think this special issue takes us a few steps in that direction. Micir and Vadde’s essay in particular highlights the exclusions that make up our discipline and field at the same time that they challenge the dismissal of “obliterature” and “amateur criticism.” If we are talking about the limits of our methods then we also have to keep in view how those limitations extend logically from the narrowness of the path to a PhD and a job that allows access to and time for academic research and writing. “Gate-keeping,” in other words, is not just a “phantom reflex” in modernist studies (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 411). Micir and Vadde’s piece, then, helps us to notice the tension between, on one hand, the special issue’s attempt to extend (by weakening) the networks of writers and scholars that make up modernist studies and, on the other, the persistent strength of the field’s artistic and scholarly networks. Relatedly, although Saint-Amour’s introduction observes the need to challenge center-periphery models of modernism and modernist studies, the issue recapitulates them in so far as more canonical figures (Verlaine and Nietzsche, Arnold, Woolf, Faulkner) provide the terms for understanding ones that are marginalized or at least little known.

The issue also attests to the centripetal historical and imaginative force of the academy. Dimock’s sequence of weak reparations, for instance, includes three writers with close ties to universities and a poem set in Quentin Compson’s Harvard dorm room. The university is an unacknowledged force in her essay’s reparative imagination. That fact draws our attention to the relationship between the weakness of the kinds of reparations that Dimock describes and those provided by universities, which, as Roderick Ferguson argues, often offer forms of inclusion and representation instead of redistribution.[4] We can find similar dynamics at work as Dimock draws upon Eve Sedgwick’s concept of reparative reading, focuses on Faulkner’s gesture to Cherokee dispossession, and turns to Gerald Vizenor. In a close reading of Melanie Klein’s work, David Eng has argued that Klein’s account of the reparative, which Sedgwick takes up, “comes to name the psychic process of responding to European colonization and genocide of indigenous peoples by repopulating the New World with images of the self-same.”[5] Klein’s model of psychic reparation, Eng argues, helps to foreclose “any possibility for racial reparation and redress” as the “besieged liberal subject” manages guilt by repairing things more to her own specifications (14). Dimock makes clear that the reparations she traces are weak at best, but does not grapple with the way that they might actually help to forestall more robust forms of redress. To be clear: I don’t think that Eng’s analysis entails a wholesale rejection of reparative practices, but instead requires us to address in each instance precisely who is repairing what and with what potential effects. (That is, in fact, in keeping with Sedgwick’s interest in making it “more possible to unpack the local, contingent relations between any given piece of knowledge and its narrative/epistemological entailments for the seeker, knower, or teller”).[6] One way to undertake that would be to revisit the concept of positionality. As Yan Tang argues in an earlier response to the special issue, a concern with positionality should complement the field’s investigations of affect, including the affects of criticism.

Sara Ahmed’s work provides one model for how we might bring together discussions of affect and positionality as well as conversations about methods, institutions, and the aims of our scholarship. Notably, in On Being Included, Ahmed bypasses debates about the limits of ideology critique, a paradigmatic strong theoretical approach, by further developing feminist and queer versions of phenomenology. Instead of pursuing ideology critique with its “critique of what the surface hides,” Ahmed investigates “the affective distribution of problems”—that is, who notices and attempts (or is expected) to deal to what and how.[7] In this and other writing, Ahmed’s phenomenology recalls and revises Vattimo’s vision of weakening through repetition and reappropriation, since Ahmed extends aspects of a canonical phenomenological tradition while combining it with women of color feminisms. Notably, the “problems” addressed by Ahmed encompass everything from institutional diversity efforts to issues of textual interpretation. Ahmed attends to people’s affective engagements with problems, and to how material histories shape but do not determine those engagements and affects. Sedgwick’s reparative method responds to histories of homophobic violence and, via Klein, of colonization, but it sometimes circulates as an approach that is detached from such legacies. A similar dynamic could play out as modernist studies takes up weak theoretical methods associated with feminist and queer theory; it may be that the versions of weakness (as expansion and vagueness) that Saint-Amour finds already operating in modernist studies override rather than dovetail with feminist, queer, and disability studies approaches to weakness, despite the efforts of the scholars in this special issue. Meanwhile, we will be better equipped to assess the implications and effects of modernist studies’ and weak theory’s particular repetitions and innovations if we retire the epithet “fashionable” as an easy way to discredit current work in the field.

 

Katherine Fusco: Speculative Archives and Subjunctive Moods

There’s something heartening about turning to Modernism/modernity’s special issue on weakness in this era of new nationalisms as well as scholarly “superstars” exposed as no exception to the rule that power protects power. It was the possibility of doing literary scholarship in a field differently, interdisciplinarily, more inclusively, perhaps more imaginatively that drew thinkers to the new modernist studies that Douglass Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz described in 2008 through the term “expansion” (737).[1]

Certainly, the new modernist studies as represented by the Modernist Studies Association is not utopia; utopias require too much boundary policing and more restrictive missions. More negatively, there’s been a lack of diversity at the conference and within the pages of Modernism/modernity, and the board has heard this criticism, taking the important first step of scheduling the conference at a different time than the American Studies Association. Imperfect as any institution and without an official doctrine, the MSA has nonetheless largely acted, as Paul Saint-Amour describes in his issue introduction, as “host” more than “bouncer,” leaving off from tired questions of “[b]ut is it really modernist?”[2] The result, if not precisely utopian, has at least resulted in a community that is weakly defined, perhaps weakly affiliated in the way Paul Saint-Amour’s and Gabriel Hankins’s contributions suggest, and which may include at any moment works of mass culture, works specifically coded in gendered or racialized terms, canonical works read queerly, as well as works from dates and locations other than England in the 1920s and 1930s, to take examples drawn from this issue.

Anxious Weakening

It’s the definitional weakness (or expansiveness) of modernism that seems most clearly generative and perhaps the easiest to get on board with in the issue’s pages, though Saint-Amour cautions against the imperial tendencies of field expansion, the claiming of territories under the flag of the new modernist studies. After all, he notes, “there can be a disquietingly short distance from hospitality to hostile takeover” (“Weak Theory,” 453). If we are cautiously optimistic about weak modernism (and it seems most of the essays in the volume are), what’s trickier throughout the pages of the special issue, and registered in a number of nearly-confessional moments in Saint-Amour’s intro, is the matter of weak theory that occasions our gathering here.  At various moments within the issue, “weak theory” may look like a tool, a choice of object, a reading strategy, or a method of archive creation or selection, as well as any combination of these. (While we’re being confessional, writing this response prompted a somewhat anxious conversation with a friend: Q: “Wait, are we doing weak theory? Is that a good thing?” A: “Maybe and maybe.”). At times, the issue locates weak theory as the outgrowth of writings by thinkers as varied as Wai Chi Dimock, Rita Felski, Bruno Latour, Heather K. Love, Sharon Marcus, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Gianni Vattimo. But sometimes not. What’s clearer is what weak theory isn’t: the sort of totalizing Marxist-historicist reading of a period given in something like Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious or Postmodernism. Against the sometimes fuzziness of what weak theory may mean to the field (lots of things!), Dimock’s opening paragraphs in “Weak Network: Faulkner’s Transpacific Reparations” offer a model of scholarly teaching often absent from such large-scale reflections on field and theory as she generously rehearses meanings and key figures central to her thinking about field weakness.[3]

Tasked with introducing an issue as various in texts and approaches as this particular “weak” gathering, Saint-Amour offers positive definitions of weak theory that are perhaps necessarily various and varying, but his frank anxiety about what we stand to lose in our embrace of the weak is striking, and reads as the affective halo for this issue. For in addition to cautioning against the hostile takeover that may ride alongside the more benign-sounding weakening of canon called field expansion, in the mournfully-titled “Embers” section that closes the essay, Saint-Amour strikes a note that sounds more personal and more political. He writes:

I’d like to step back now to air some of my own ambivalences about weak theory. I was trained in the 1980s and early 1990s and remain committed to much of the project of neo-Marxist cultural materialism and political formalism, and thus to some of the very moves that advocates of post-critique literary studies would abandon as over-chewed, flavorless gum. These include the swerve from appearances to structures; the attempt to trace occulted or non-obvious relations among apparently disparate things, the belief that there is some correlation between exposing the ruses of ideology and, if not neutralizing them, at least deflecting them or opposing them more mindfully while imagining alternative ways of being in the world. (“Weak Theory,” 454)

Pulling back the curtain on his ambivalences, Saint-Amour connects imagination and opposition as modes at risk of being lost in our censure of strong critique, a loss that may have implications for some of the admirable field-weakening that has been one of the new modernist studies’ more valuable offerings. Anti-racist work and anti-sexist work, for instance, in its focus on recovery and reclamation, expanding borders and boundaries, frequently depends upon the diagnosis of “structures” and “non-obvious relations,” though here I would suggest that the scholar is often more weary than heroic (454). See, for example, the seemingly endless work conducted by early film scholar Shelley Stamp, who reminds us again and again that women have always made movies. One hopes that her new Kino boxed set Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers will somewhat relieve her of the task of pointing out the ideology underpinning our ongoing amnesia in this regard.[4]

Counterfactual Thinking and Archival Imagining

In addition to the oppositional diagnostic move Saint-Amour identifies, I’m also interested in the various imaginings of “alternative ways of being in the world” opened up by strong critique. On the one hand, we might picture utopian and radical imaginings very much akin to the artists’ collectives and political movements of the modernist era. On the other, there’s the scholarly imagination that it takes to do field-expanding work, one that involves creative speculation and incomplete archives because “alternative ways of being in the world” have been so long absent from our conversations or so poorly archived and preserved. Just a few weeks after the “Weak Theory” special issue of Modernism/modernity arrived in members’ mailboxes, a number of attendees at the MSA conference in Columbus posited possible readings of texts, a lack of definiteness characterized not by timidity, but by a willingness to take on counterfactual thinking, gaps in archives, and incomplete records. In the panel on “The Pasts and Futures of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” for example, papers included Alix Beeston’s work on Fitzgerald’s incomplete Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon and Pardis Dabashi’s exploration of what it might mean that Nella Larsen, an author thinly preserved in archives, returned to the theater for repeat viewings of George Cukor’s Camille (1936). Though carefully framed as imaginative (though thorough) investigations into what might have been, such papers nonetheless sparked lively debate between audience and panelists about such speculative scholarship. Responding to criticism, Beeston noted that archives of modernists such as Larsen may be under-preserved or incomplete, throwing the scholar back upon more imaginative ways of engaging such material. In other words, who gets preserved and how presents a particular challenge to scholars of modernist studies who seek to “weaken” the field by expanding the object of study to include the modernisms of women, people of color, queer people, authors writing outside of Europe and others.[5] This canon weakening, though, may entail the diagnostic tradition of strong theory (whether this tradition is named or not) as well as the imaginative inhabitation of archival lacunae.

This type of otherwise thinking has also been central to important weak formulations of the field. As Saint-Amour writes of Jessica Berman and Tsitsi Jaji’s work: “Although both Jaji’s and Berman’s formulations use the indicative mood . . . there’s an implied subjunctive to both, an element of the provisional, the probabilistic, or the thought-experimental, as becomes clear  . . . when [Berman] goes on to say that ‘Modernist narrative might best be seen as a constellation” (452). In addition to such speculative moves in positing the field of study, the essays of Sara Crangle and Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde ask readers not just to engage with the historical, textual, and biological fact upon which their arguments are built, but also to envision a counterfactual shadow history of what might have been for their female subjects, had things been otherwise. In a particularly devastating anecdote Micir and Vadde recount independent scholar and experimental writer Kate Zambreno being turned away from the Bodleian Library where Vivien(ne) Eliot’s papers reside, but without rigorous archival organization: “The irony here is almost too much to bear: Zambreno cannot access this material herself because she is not a professional, academic literary critic. To the Bodleian’s knowledge, there has not been sufficient academic interest in Vivien(ne) Eliot to produce someone who would be recognizable to them as an expert on the material. Yet Zambreno cannot—despite repeated attempts—gain entry into the PhD programs necessary to qualify her as precisely such an expert.”[6] The essay thus gives the diagnosis of the way sexism structures archives, but also opens the reader’s imagination to what might be if the field had this scholar of Vivien(ne) Eliot, which we do not. 

A similar counterfactual strand runs throughout Crangle’s essay on Anne Mendelssohn/Grace Lake, in which she recounts the way a poet committed to living a political life turns from the political in her poetic works—in part, Crangle suggests, because her earlier commitment to strong political movements lost Mendelssohn her place within the university, her liberty during a period of incarceration, and, eventually, custody of her children. The result is that Mendelssohn turns to the model of “the apolitical cursed poet”: “[p]olitics devoured Mendelssohn’s life; she did not want it to devour her artistry also.”[7] This is, of course, the work within the archive (and Mendelssohn’s/Lake’s archive is a significantly more voluminous thing than, say, Larsen’s). It is the evidence at hand. And yet, in this biographical essay detailing Mendelssohn’s identification as poétesse Maudite, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if she had not been so devoured, if the removal of politically radical women’s children were not one of the tools in the state’s arsenal. What if things were otherwise? 

A kind of politically important imagining, otherwise-thinking also comes through in new field methods. This is the case in Benjamin Kahan’s etiological experiments, Wai Chi Dimock’s continued work to shift geographical centers and thus literary histories, as well as Gabriel Hankins’s accounting for Digital Modernist studies, which begins with the question, “Are digital methods weak or strong?”[8] From here, he posits both the limits and opportunities of such methods:

Over and above the labor of the individual critic, digital modernist studies demands collaborative labor and collective verification, along with new methods of peer review now coming into view. Such methods at their best afford us few of the pleasures of deciphering, uncovering, or excavating meaning associated with the strong theoretical approaches that Paul Ricoeur describes as the hermeneutics of suspicion, despite the now privileged rhetoric of ‘data mining.’ Nor do they offer historicist critics an escape from the careful composition of texts, contexts, and archives. What digital methods instead offer to modernist studies, I suggest, are the weak powers of experimental disciplinary liaisons, provisional models, subjunctive modes, hapax legomena, paratextual embellishments, and fragile geographies. (Hankins, “The Weak Powers,” 570)

Here, too, the language of subjunctive, incomplete cases, and the experimental are on scene. For, importantly, Hankins’s digital modernism acknowledges the work modernist studies has done to refuse calls to totality and thus does not participate in some of the more strong-arming data descriptions that has made those skeptical of the digital humanities wary. Instead, Hankins’s interest in the relation between field and method leads him to conclude:

The urge toward totality exhibited by such strong constructions of the literary field [as those coming out of Stanford] is . . . unlikely to resonate widely in modernist studies,…An enormous range of work in the new modernist studies has demonstrated the relevance of what was once called mass culture, and of popular and “middlebrow” literary genres more specifically, to the study of modernism as a cultural formation. Yet modernist studies continues to construct its subject matter not as a “unified, internally differentiated” field in the manner of Moretti et al., but rather as a weakly connected network of nodes. . . . The large corpora of “representative” texts examined by Moretti, Jockers, and others, and their correspondingly strong theories of genre, historical change, and periodization, all seem less suitable for the study of modernist iconoclasts, coteries, and polemicists. (578-579)

Not mentioned by Hankins, but included in that the work of field construction, is the inclusion of other subjectivities at risk of being erased in more totalizing methods (however humble they may claim to be), an implication that aligns Hankins’s work (along with that of feminist digital modernists such as Shawna Ross) with both Crangle’s archival and biographical study and the recovery work of Micir and Vadde. In this way, the issue itself offers a model of affiliated methods within a field loosely aligned.

Strangebedfellowtravelers

I share some of Saint-Amour’s discomfort around the matter of academics embracing weakness, especially as strongman politicians dominate the public sphere. With demands for strong borders and strong ethnic identifications among whites in the United States and Europe, a move toward weakness can feel like turning up a soft underbelly. The call to weakness, for example, seems a far cry from Dr. King’s programmatically titled “Project C,” c standing for the confrontation to be staged in Birmingham. But perhaps this is not the time for the programmatic. As Saint-Amour writes: “When what you oppose has a death-grip on repetition and dissemination, you may need to shift registers” (“Weak Theory,” 455). So, perhaps it is unsurprising that as scholars, teachers, and world citizens we find ourselves in this moment drawn, through a weak affiliation of sentiments, to strange bedfellows loosely associated, not unlike Bonnie Kime Scott’s web of modernists or the image of BBC Eastern Service broadcasters being discussed by scholars such as Daniel Morse and Peter Killiney, both of which Saint-Amour notes in his opening as examples of “weaker social ties that facilitate more diverse and attenuated clusters” (450).  

Where does this leave us? In addition to the weak networks discussed by Hankins, and the alternative methodologies and publishing practices discussed by Micir and Vadde, the Twitter work of collectives such as Bigger 6 Romanticism (@Bigger6Romantix) and the V21 Collective (@V21collective) offer models of unofficial scholarly spaces devoted to projects of weakening. These are also spaces where tenured faculty, publishers, independent scholars, assistant professors, visiting faculty, and students alike participate in defining fields, creating syllabi, and asking what it might mean for fields to be otherwise. The scholarship and scholarly connections modeled by these collectives call to mind sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work on “strength of weak ties,” cited in Wai Chee Dimock’s essay. As Dimock writes, “[t]he ties that result do not amount to much, but they are also difficult to stamp out, a downstream cascade likely to grow” (“Weak Network,” 590). In this moment, in scholarship, in academia, and in politics, maybe this isn’t such a bad place to be.

 

Julian Murphet: Decadence

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s fifth feature film (1979), the eponymous Stalker offers a moving paean to weakness:

For softness is great and strength is worthless. When a man is born, he is soft and pliable. When he dies, he is strong and hard. When a tree grows, it is soft and pliable. But when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Flexibility and softness are the embodiments of life. That which has become hard shall not triumph.

Mortal pliability, its essential vulnerability to hostile forces, is paradoxically the key to its resilience and power, its regenerative and redemptive nascence against what is fatally hard and strong—so far, leaning heavily on Dostoevsky’s idiot, does Tarkovsky feel emboldened, in this, his final Soviet work, to speak explicitly the language of Christian humanism through the mouth of his own indemnified holy fool. As the science-fictional premise rapidly devolves into a crisis of religious faith in the Zone, this one is hard-pressed to imagine an ethical doctrine more distant from the urgent, skull-cracking didactics of his great predecessor, Sergei Eisenstein—and indeed, this ideological assumption of the posture of weakness bears formal fruit, in the great long takes of elemental being, the ponderous slowness and mortal tedium of Stalker’s soporific crawl toward its end; placed surely at some hypothetical polar extremity from Eisenstein’s “intellectual montage,” his pulverizing blows to the sensorium, and the break-neck speeds of his action sequences. We are at a stage in the development of Soviet cinema when the great, heroic modernism of its origins in materialism, politics, and formalism, is guttering rapidly out into something easily identifiable as nostalgia (the title of Tarkovsky’s next film, shot in Italy), and saturated with hitherto impermissible sentiments and affects. Christian humanism? Only in a society grinding inevitably towards its own historical terminus—not in the Zone’s inner sanctum of sacred resplendence, but the imported fluorescent supermarket glare of mass consumerism—could such an ideological formation seem, against all odds, urgent and heartfelt again. But here we have entered, surely, into the vicinity of decadence.

Decadence has known various flavors and tonalities. Rome’s was orgiastic and corpulent, given to moral turpitude, a violent spillage of noble virtue into the trough of vice. The Hapsburgs invented conspicuous consumption in order to stave off the inevitable collapse: lavish gilded extravagance coated a tottering cadaverous shamble. The decadence of the fin-de-siècle was waxy and pallid, a putrid ground note beneath a morbid carapace of trembling flesh and brittle cachinnations. What unites them all, however, is a simple principle of disaggregation, the dismantlement of the whole in favor of the parts.

In her treatment of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Là-bas (1891), Regenia Gagnier notes of one astounding description of the Crucifixion by Mattæus Grünewald that, in it, “the unity of action is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase and the phrase to the word.”[1] Havelock Ellis had of course defined decadence in precisely this way in 1889:

A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word. A decadent style, in short, is an anarchistic style in which everything is sacrificed to the development of the individual parts.[2]

Writing scornfully of the decadent empiricism reducing the spirit of inquiry to the mere accumulation of knowledge, Freidrich Nietzsche similarly remarked that “The spirit of science rules its parts, not the whole.”[3] Genuine understanding falls apart into “chemistry,” “astronomy,” “biology”; and each of these disciplines in turn is susceptible to further scissiparity and subdivision. Such observations run through the theory and practice of modernism, of course, mostly as a tendency to be engaged and overcome. There is, it is generally felt, something weak about decadence; its center will not hold; the various elements cast together in its force-field dissever, flow inertly apart from one another, so that the artifice of their combination becomes newly, and poignantly, visible; all is a jumble of luminous part-objects, each fascinating in its own right, but none exerting executive control over the agglomeration.

My sense is that the intellectual formation now calling itself “weak theory” is, perforce, a symptom of decadence. The beguiling idea of  “weak theory” is to assume no posture that might reasonably smack of mastery or assurance of outcome, or pretend to an all-encompassing overview; instead, to allow the various pieces that swim into the investigator’s ken to “be in their being,” as it were, or lock into new networks of association that have nothing to do with the assumptions of the original producers. The retreat from “sovereign axioms,” as Wai-Chee Dimock puts it, permits the various units of evidence to emit signals of their own autonomy from, and resistance to, any strong hypothesis that might manhandle them into a predetermined shape, any hierarchy that might sort them into orders of relevance or truth.[4] Rita Felski, in her Latourian turn, likes to promulgate the benefits of demoting the monolithic hermeneutics of suspicion for a horizontal sprawl of networked hook-ups and encounters, a “neophenomenology—a sustained attention to the sheer range and complexity of aesthetic experiences.”[5] Affect theory dismantles wrong-headed totalizations like “consciousness” or “the subject” into nodes of sheer intensity, blocs of sensation and mood that cannot be amalgamated without violence into any singular form. A recent, fine, book on the theory of character can unexceptionally say, in a footnote, that its argument hinges “on concepts such as narrowness, finitude, and indifference.”[6] Over and again, one hears of “tangential processes, wayward lines of association, oblique to an existing system, pulling away from it and stretching it in unexpected ways” (Dimock, “Weak Theory,” 736).

We are, in that sense, self-evidently in a moment of intellectual history where the part trumps the whole, and dehiscence outflanks coherence: a moment, that is to say, of decadence. Networks are our most compelling figures of “the whole,” only in a network, nothing is ever finished, and the various parts are constantly moving into and out of adjacency and propinquity with one another. Our ontology is “object-oriented,” which is to say sociologically otiose and groundless; being, like history, is just one damn thing next to another. And we seem to have found, in aesthetic modernism, an “object” attuned to the logic of our attention. For in the artefacts and protocols of modernism, what we discern, over and over, is that stubborn formal tendency that used to be identified as “reification,” or the becoming-thinglike or relatively autonomous of the various materials that constitute their aesthetic complexion. Ulysses, Fredric Jameson once remarked, is defined above all by “its organizational composition into distinct and separate semi-autonomous chapters—an imperative so strong as to propel each of the later chapters into a style unmistakably its own and thereby divided from the others as by language itself.”[7] Only, redoubled by our own resistance to totalization, the objects of modernism now feel liberated from even the ghostly vestige of some remote principle of unity—some Absolute—and are today to be witnessed disporting on the plane of immanence where nothing matters more than anything else.

Modernism grew out of the humus of decadence, to be sure; but (for my money) what distinguished it was always a powerful, totemic idea of the Whole—a unity, a governing notion, a sovereign principle—wrenched violently from the ruins of the sacred, and reintegrated by fiat, behind the backs of the individual works, on the plane of the aesthetic. It was never, to be sure, a material presence in any given work, this regulative idea of the Absolute; rather, it perforated and saturated them all via a subterranean pipeline, a back-door rerouting of principles that, elsewhere in the reified lifeworlds of modernity, also sought fitful, sometimes terrible expression against the paradigmatic experience of separation and atomization: totality, completion, form, unity. And, in order to attain that dimension, to enter into fugitive compact with the Absolute—the One—the works of modernism were obliged to become hard.

Hard

Hardness has several dimensions here. It is, of course, a kind of difficulty, a genetic defiance of all that is easy, light, disposable. But it is also a sort of material consistency and solidity, a foursquare formal density, the way some woods and metals are harder than others, less brittle, less supple, better able to sustain serious weight. Then again, what is hard is strong, robust, unyielding, having the capacity to endure over time, at the expense of weaker materials and objects. And finally, “hard” obviously enough connotes a rejection of emotional softness, a hard-boiled epidermis, toughened and weathered, able to parry the shocks and blows of a precarious existence. What matters, I think, is that the modernist assumption of hardness, as a multidimensional modus operandi, was not merely voluntary or capricious, but determinate, conditioned by socioeconomic circumstances, and forged in the fire of fierce ideological debates. Modernist hardness—the refusal of self-evidence, of baggy limpness, of disposability, and of “emotional slither”—is no accidental or fortuitous aesthetic formation; neither is it the conspiracy of some few “men of 1914”; it is a defiant response to a relative decline in the social importance of the arts, and to the transformation of public taste under a new cultural order of things.[8] It is a reassertion of endangered principles and an offensive reaction against the inexorable rise of easier, less durable, more entertaining, and more sentimental cultural wares. It is that, it seems to me, or it is nothing—whether in Rio, Tokyo, Sydney, Los Angeles, Delhi, Tbilisi, or Berlin.

Now, none of that necessarily implies that modernism requires an equally “strong” theory, of the sort that (under the Cerberus-aegis of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche) once vouchsafed a certain generational, perhaps distorted, picture of it. But I would certainly want to say that, when all is said and done, what Paul Saint-Amour calls “whole areas of study that have lately become important in our field, including the everyday, the domestic, the affective, the middlebrow, the infrastructural, the doctrinal” does not amount to a theory at all, even a weak one, but posits anew the very range of phenomena that modernism wanted, in the alembic of its fastidious attentiveness, to “harden” into truth—neither to reject, nor simply to forestall, but precisely to temper within formal processes that put the banal and quotidian in unwonted compact with the Absolute.[9] Again, it is a matter of contending with decadence – in this case, our own. What “weak theory” makes of modernism is a decadent array of phenomena, its various parts free to establish untold networks with other, similar, parts, at the cost of any consideration of what it was in the first place that warranted the artist’s attention to them, or of the singular logic of that attention itself. “Paradigms of weak thought” may well “facilitate more diverse and attenuated clusters” of things and persons; but they do not, for that reason, honour the central aesthetic facts of modernism so much as they flatter our own epistemological and sociopolitical prejudices, our own susceptibility to reification and command, our own decadence (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 450). Saint-Amour rightly accounts for this in terms of a “descriptive turn” in modernist studies; but description is far from a neutral term or practice (451). “Narrate or Describe,” as Georg Lukács once pointedly posed the dilemma: description is weak theory in action; narration is how strong theory works. Rather than patiently accumulating more and more painstaking phenomenological detail and then, just at the point where an uncomfortable explanation may have seemed pertinent, dropping the mike, narration assumes the responsibility of assaying some kind of account of why things are the way they are, at the risk of error and impertinence.

Why this really matters has little to do with modernism at all, and much more to do with the political actuality of our present conjuncture. This is a conjuncture in which, need I remind anybody at all, it is an almost daily fact of life that young unarmed black men in the United States are murdered by police, if they are not herded into the prison-industrial complex for a new kind of slavery; where women are still preponderantly the casualties of what is euphemistically called “domestic abuse,” a regime of unhindered daily patriarchal violence; where vast numbers of Africans, Middle-Easterners, and South Asians, displaced by imperialistic and regional wars, wander the surface of the globe in search of safe harbor, only to confront an ever-growing tangle of razor-wire tightening around the West; where far-right groups and parties are openly affirming fascist, racist, genocidal sentiments and policies, and being elected to office; where mafia-style administrations brutally suppress dissent and eliminate minorities with impunity; and where the very fate of the planet is left in the hands of plutocrats and kleptocrats with no immediate reason to fear a precipitous rise in sea levels. Capitalism has shed its own former bashful modesty, its veils of ideological justification and obfuscation, and appears before us naked, rampant, fully immersed in the destructive element. My sense is that this conjuncture is asking more of us than a “new modesty” of approach to urgent interpretive and evaluative problems; more than a “minimal critical” or “suspended” sense of agency; more than some shoulder-shrugging “epistemological humility” before the intractable material problems of our time.

One of the great virtues of modernism as a field of study, it has always seemed to me, is that it remained for so long a time one of the few sub-disciplines that actively fostered and abetted the construction of strong critical theories. Stimulated by the hardness of its objects of inquiry, modernist studies looked for difficult, complex, and demanding answers to questions left latent in the material—explanations that were narratively driven, experimentally elaborated, and bristling with conceptual innovation. A distinctive benefit of the protective enclave that modernism offered young intellectuals was precisely that there seemed to be a correlation between this field of inquiry and a certain degree of political commitment, or at least the development of socially critical thought. Modernist studies sharpened the critical knives of generations of young radicals, feeding into complex worldwide currents of protest culture and anti-capitalist praxis. The “descriptive turn” has tended to erode that tendency, too, leaving modernist studies as bereft of regulative concepts and “sovereign axioms” as any other domain of cultural inquiry. “[C]ontent to let modernism be definitionally and constitutively vague,” the weak-theoretical ascendancy promotes socially vague thinking, an uncritical acceptance of the given, provided it can be remixed and subtracted from the “hard” matrix of formal negations (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 452).

Strong Theory

One way to conclude this discussion of the difference between “weak” and “strong” theory is to remark the difference between Season One and Season Two of the consistently frustrating Netflix true-crime series, Making a Murderer. In Season One, two male lawyers—wet liberals both—take on the burden of defending accused murderer Steven Avery with a heavy heart and a weak counter-narrative which, by court order, could not propose an alternative suspect. These men (Dean Strang and Jerry Buting) do what all good liberals do: complain endlessly about the system they work for, and let it ride roughshod all over their case and their client; one of them ends up by hoping that Mr. Avery is guilty after all, as the alternative is “too horrifying to contemplate.” Season Two instantly demotes these losers to the outer margins of near-malpractice. They are rebuked again and again as missing opportunities, failing to collect evidence, and (in the most telling phrase used to disparage their efforts) “not connecting the dots.” Enter the season’s most extraordinary character, Kathleen Zellner. Zellner is everything Strang and Buting are not: arrogant, superior, completely prepared, exhaustive, exhausting, impossible, and illiberal to a fault. Wasting no time wringing hands or wishing on a star, she mercilessly builds an iron-clad series of refutations of the prosecution, and rubbishes the efforts of the defense. Every opportunity is taken to cast radical doubt on the case against her client, whom she declares to be innocent of the crime for which he is serving time (a “sovereign axiom” if ever there was one); and nobody’s ego is sacrosanct in her quest to achieve that one, impossible goal: to spring him from prison. Above all, she excels at “connecting the dots,” at bringing together evidence in compelling, arresting, absorbing counter-narratives, implicating other men as suspects as the evidence allows. We are never in doubt as to her intentions, and thus of the “interested” nature of her hypotheses: they are goal-oriented in the most obvious sense. The superiority of her efforts is clear to all the participants, until the lethal fire of her gaze falls on them as potential suspects. Here is strong theory in action; it may be, to date, no more effective than its alternative at realizing its goal, but its rewards at another level are considerable.

Theoretical approaches, methodologies—these are more than the habitus of a limited scholarly practice. They actively shape and construct the world around us, in which we are obliged to live, work, and struggle. In any number of ways, the object of inquiry is less important than the questions we bring to it; even description, as low-level a method as you could imagine, implies all sorts of theoretical presuppositions, and, more importantly, precludes others from entering the analysis. Still, some objects are more complex than others, “harder,” more intractable and multidimensional; and these, we must think, ask more of us that a passive resignation. The story of Steven Avery is as equivocal and ambivalent as any in the annals of modernism—from Dostoevsky to Musil, by way of Conrad, Döblin, and Faulkner—but what Kathleen Zellner brings home to us is that such ambivalence can be forced, indeed must be forced, in a context of routine exploitation and systematic injustice, into a confrontation with truth. And that doing so is justified and productive. The individual case—the twists and turns of its evidence, the immanent plane of its phenomena—matters far less than the occasion it offers to test the very principles of social life against their daily sacrifice to cynicism and the profit motive. Weak theory is fond of the evidence, to be sure, but disdains to be confident of any governing principles that might arrange that evidence in compelling, motivated, resistant shapes. As a result, nothing much gets said. Strong theory, on the other hand, marshals its materials to match the belligerent powers of the prosecution—its monopoly of resources, manpower, violence, and ideological control—because it knows in advance that this is a fight to the death. While weak theory gathers around the fading embers of a lost opportunity, strong theory breathes those embers into a raging fire to fling in the faces of the enemy.

It is one of the signs of Tarkovsky’s genius that, despite his obvious attraction to the Christian-humanist ethic of his Stalker—“That which has become hard shall not triumph,” etc.—he ultimately demonstrates how this character’s disappointment with his quest and his companions results in an utterly conventional litany of complaints and resentments: “why couldn’t they just believe?,” “what has happened to faith?,” “why is the world so crap?” The Stalker’s collapse into vulgar sentiment and egotistical griping could not be more disappointing, in light of the sacred prospects on offer. Weakness is as weakness does. But Tarkovsky does not leave the last word to this kind of capitulation, instead turning to the enigmatic figure of the Stalker’s daughter, Marta, who can neither walk nor talk thanks to her father’s genetic contamination by the Zone. In his magnificent final shot, Tarkovsky frames Marta in profile at the table, reading a large, bookmarked volume that we initially feel must be a Bible; until, in voice-over, as she shuts the book, we hear her recite a Fyodor Tyuchev poem:

How I love your eyes, my friend,

With their radiant play of fire,

When you lift them fleetingly

And like lightning in the skies

Your gaze sweeps swiftly round.

 

But there are charms more powerful still

In eyes downward cast

For the moment of a passionate kiss,

When through lowered eyelids glows

The somber, dull flame of desire.

It is only then, after the camera has tracked back to allow the full expanse of the tabletop to subtend her face, that Marta turns toward us, tilts her head, and makes the impossible happen. Tarkovsky has radically misunderstood his own film: “The Stalker seems to be weak, but essentially it is he who is invincible because of his faith and his will to serve others.”[10] He is as inane as his protagonist. No, the invincible one is not the Stalker, not the weak theorist, but the silent prodigy he carries on his shoulders, who pierces the veil of reality with her fiery gaze, and, with a “sovereign axiom” like no other, rearranges it to suit her “somber, dull flame of desire.”

 

Notes for David Ayers

[1] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004), xiii, 1-3.

[2] Heather Love, “Dwelling in Ambivalence,” Women's Review of Books 22, no. 2 (2004), 18–19, 19.

[3] See Sara Crangle, “The Agonies of Ambivalence: Anna Mendelssohn, la poétesse maudite,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 461–97, 462, 476.

[4] Angela McRobbie, “Vulnerability, violence and (cosmopolitan) ethics: Butler’s Precarious Life,” The British Journal of Sociology 57, no. 1 (2006), 69–86, 70.

[5] Jacques Derrida, “Violence et métaphysique: essai sur la pensée d’Emmanuel Levinas,” in L’écriture et la différence (Paris: Seuil, 1967), 117–228, 188.

[6] See Jacques Rolland, “Préface,” in Emmanuel Levinas, Éthique comme philosophie première, prefacé et annoté par Jacques Roland (1992; Paris : Payot et Rivages, 1998), 12–13n1. For an extended examination of this question see David Brezis, Levinas et le tournant sacrificiel (Paris: Hermann, 2012), 99–176.

[7] See Gianni Vattimo, “Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole,” in Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti, ed., Il pensiero debole (1983; Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985), 12–28, 13.

[8] See Gianni Vattimo, “Verso un’ontologia del declino,” in Al di là del soggetto: Nietzsche, Heidegger e l’ermeneutica (1981; Milano: Feltrinelli, 1989), 51–74, 56, 62. My translation.

[9] Pier Aldo Rovatti, Inattualità del pensiero debole (Udine: Forum, 2011), 30. My translation.


Notes for Holly Laird

[1] Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: Norton, 1994), 210–31, 215–16.

[2] Jacques Derrida, “Differánce” (1968), Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 1–27.

[3] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004); Nancy Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” in The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1997), 216–40; Sandra Harding, “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” in Feminist Epistemologies, ed. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[4] But the Victorianist scholar Ulrich Knoepflmacher taught this Arnold in the 1980s (hence one of my first publications, “Arnold among the Contentions of Criticism,” Victorian Newsletter 71 [1987], 1-4), though he also noted how Arnold’s citational practice de-contextualizes the critics Arnold lampoons. In addition, while there’s sarcasm in this writing, Arnold deplored the Anglo-Saxon sound of “Wragg” versus purportedly Attic beauty—leaving people’s social problems to his famous social reformist father. Grace Lavery’s Arnold, arguably, becomes Pateresque.

[5] Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988).

[6] Jane Gallop, The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), 29–32.

[7] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[8] Rich, “Notes,” 213–14; Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

[9] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 437.

[10] Decontextualized definitions, however, go begging (I believe) without at least passing acknowledgment of the historico-institutional development of a given discourse and affiliated anti-conventional innovations: from the 1880s, with “modernismo” and multiple “the new[s],” through early twentieth-central papal doctrine, interwar aesthetic self-nomination, and mid-century academic apologia, culminating in “the new modernist studies” from the 1990s to the present.

[11] Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), and Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

[12] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1996), 148, 155, 237–38; and my own “Aurora Leigh: An Epical Ars Poetica,” Aurora Leigh, 534–40, 536–38.

[13] Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” Conditions 1, no. 2 (1977): 25–44.

[14] Louise Bernikow, ed., The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950 (New York: Random House, 1974).

[15] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991), 1241–99.

[16] Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet.


Notes for Tim Wientzen

[1] 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, 131.

[2] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 451.

[3] See Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–49.

[4] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Network: Faulkner’s Transpacific Reparations,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 587–602, 589.


Notes for Elizabeth M. Sheehan

[1] See, for example, Bruce Robbins, “Not So Well Attached,” PMLA 132, no. 2 (2017), 371–76.

[2] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 455.

[3] Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, Trans. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 175.

[4] Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

[5] David Eng, “Colonial Object Relations,” Social Text 34, no. 1 (2016): 1–19, 13.

[6] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, 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, 124.

[7] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 185.


Notes for Katherine Fusco

[1] Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. “The New Modernist Studies.” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48.

[2] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 453, 441.

[3] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Network: Faulkner’s Transpacific Reparations,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 587–602.

[4] Stamp, Shelly, curator. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers. Kino Lorber, 2018.

[5] As a side note, for all the talk of weakening or expansion of the new modernist studies, the issue remains fairly rooted in the traditionally literary—prose fiction and poetry—with exceptions mainly coming in the form of paratexts to such literary documents. It’s worth mentioning because the other arts of modernity, including some discussed in books reviewed in the same issue, such as architecture (one subject of Laura Chiesa’s Space as Storyteller) and film and television (both treated in Scott Selisker’s Human Programming), have long been discussed in terms of multiple creative drivers and inputs, and might have provided a richer field of examples for this issue.

[6] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–49, 532–33.  

[7] Sara Crangle, “The Agonies of Ambivalence: Anna Mendelssohn, la poétesse maudite,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 461–97, 481.  

[8]  Gabriel Hankins, “The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 569-85, 569.


Notes for Julian Murphet

[1] Regenia Gagnier, Individualism, Decadence, and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859-1920 (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 170.

[2] Havelock Ellis, “A Note on Paul Bourget,” in Views and Reviews: A Selection of Uncollected Articles 1884-1932 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), 52.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, I.vi, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 14.

[4] “[A] phenomenal register more or less ad hoc, more or less episodic, namely, the impromptu meetings occasioned by citations and cross-references, and the proliferating threads of association that result.” Wai-Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53, 732.

[5] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 191.

[6] Marta Figlerowicz, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 7n9.

[7] Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (London: Verso, 2007), 18.

[8] “Emotional slither” comes from Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” in Pavannes and Divisions (New York: Knopf, 1918), 95–111, 108.

[9] See Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–459, 437.

[10] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987), 181.

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