Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part III

Here presented, the latest dollop of responses and provocations; we plan to run at least one more grouping, as well as rejoinders from issue contributors. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, do let me know!

Debra Rae Cohen


Susan Stanford Friedman: Provisionally Persistent

Nevertheless, she persisted. . .

                                                                                                            —Senator Mitch McConnell

Weak theory? I don’t feel at home with this embrace of weakness. My daughter delighted in giving me a bag with the slogan, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” recalling Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced on the floor of the Senate by the Majority Leader, who was visibly annoyed with her insistence on continuing to speak in the face of his attempts to shut her up.[1] It matters little that I don’t remember what specific issue she was addressing because every day the news brings a new shock, a new horror, a new injustice, a new corruption, a new falsehood. It is exhausting to keep up with the news. But it is vitally important to persist.

Resilience:  Being Strong

In her forthcoming book, Weak Planet, Wai Chee Dimock spotlights resilience with her subtitle, From Vulnerability to Resilience.[2] “Weak Theory,” she argued in her 2013 essay with that title, is not “sovereign”: “theory on a grand scale.” Rather, it is “lower-level,”  “rhizomatic,” “relational,” and “leaky,” made up of “locally mediated relational threads” in a kind of  “cross-stitching” that is “centrifugal,” and “multicentric.”[3] This kind of networking theory, she argues in Weak Planet, begins in a kind of weakness but moves from “vulnerability” to “resilience.” Resilience is a kind of persistence, and it takes enormous strength to persist. Persistence is the cornerstone of survival. Persistence—ongoing and strong —is the backbone of transformational change in the advocacy of social justice.

Why, then, this attraction to weakness? To “weak theory?” As Paul Saint-Amour writes in his rigorously thoughtful introduction to the splendid special issue of Modernism/modernity on Weak Theory, “Weakness comes with a lot of baggage. It sits at the center of a dense array of slurs by which marginal subjects have been kept marginal.”[4] “Strong theory” in modernist studies, he posits, is “muscular” and “masculine,” a product of an earlier day in the field, belonging “to a largely superseded moment in modernist studies” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 457). “Weak theory” is attractive, he argues, because it “can productively decenter” the normative “masculine-gendered” bias of the field, to the extent this bias still exists. “The weak,” he suggests, “can function as a synonym, variously, for woman, queer, and disabled” (438). As non-normative, the “weak” is deconstructively positioned to challenge the normative. Echoing Jeffrey Williams, Saint-Amour sees “weak theory” as a form of “the new modesty in literary criticism” (439). He recognizes early in the essay that “the embrace of weakness in theory, method, rhetoric, or field-construction [may be] a luxury only available to the strong” (442). But he never returns to this observation, favoring instead the deconstructive energies of weakness, a weakness he associates with modest “description” as the best way to unseat the hegemony of masculinist modernist studies.

Given Saint-Amour’s delineation of “weak theory” in modernist studies, I ought to love it. I am very much part of the “weak” modernist studies he describes: the softening of definitional edges, the expansion of spatio/temporal boundaries, the attention to marginalized figures, the inclusion of different aesthetic practices and forms; the multi-directional and transnational “network exchanges”; the outreach to postcolonial studies and other forms of attack on the Eurocentric brand of modernism that either ignored the rest of the world or incorporated it into a center/periphery model of transnational literary history. I too have reproduced Bonnie Kime Scott’s marvelous chart of criss-crossing networks among modernists, first appearing in The Gender of Modernism in 1990.[5]  Like Saint-Amour, I feel completely at home with the formulation of the field he cites from Jessica Berman’s Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism: “Modernism, I will claim, stands for a dynamic set of relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements with modernity rather than a static canon of works, a given set of formal devices, or a specific range of beliefs.”[6] The subtitle of Planetary Modernisms is Provocations on Modernity Across Time, words that were meant to capture what Saint-Amour finds in Berman’s approach: “the provisional, the probalistic, or the thought-experimental” (452).

I could go on listing the ways in which the field Saint-Amour describes is the one in which I feel at home. But the point is that I feel greatly estranged from it as a theoretical positioning, as an affect of writing, since I remain aware of myself as a woman in a profession where overt and hidden forms of exclusion of many kinds have not disappeared. I feel instead that I would never have survived in the field if I had embraced weakness. After all, the first essay I published is titled “Who Buried H.D.?”[7] As I look back at the words of that very young critic in 1975 I am struck by the strength of the essay’s raw outrage, its insistence that H.D.’s importance be recognized, that her work should not be read through the lens of penis-envy, that her identification of writing with the procreative mother be admitted into the canons of modernism. In those early days of feminist criticism as a growing force in American departments, conferences, and publishing, strength was a necessity, weakness a liability. To enter the mindset of those years, just look at James McFarland and Malcolm Bradbury’s “Brief Biographies” of modernist figures in their field-defining volume of 1975, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930. Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, and Edith Södergran were the only women included in the 99 entries. The paragraph on Woolf ends with this assessment: “Mrs Woolf’s [novels] can seem in some respects a domesticated Modernism, but it contains shrill undertones of disturbance and terror, dark insights undoubtedly related to her suicide in 1941.”[8] To insert women writers and gender issues more generally into modernist studies was both exhilarating and risky, professionally. The rise of feminist criticism was only the beginning of what became, along with other transformative movements (especially in race, postcolonial, and sexuality studies), a massive paradigm shift in the field, creating the expansions Saint-Amour wants to identify with weakness and I want to see linked with the non-normative, persistent strength of the outsiders.

Ah, but some might say, those transformations of muscular-masculine modernism have already been accomplished. The field has changed, and the time for weakness has arrived. Just look at the superb essays included in the special issue. The earlier boundaries of time and space, gender and sexuality, medium and message have dissipated. Each essay takes up a different approach to weakness: Sara Crangle on the writer and artist Anna Mendelssohn (b. 1948), in tune, she argues, with the “weak theory” of Nietzsche and Levinas; Grace Lavery on how Matthew Arnold has been misread as the great defender of high culture and can be recuperated for modernism by recognizing that he wrote “weak” criticism out of a condition of being criticized; Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde on the amateurism (weak professionalism) of Woolf in Three Guineas and the contemporary writer Kate Zambreno in her critical blogs; Benjamin Kahan on early twentieth-century sexologists who refused the strong nature/nurture binary of sexual etiology in favor of ambiguity; Gabriel Hankins on the undeservedly “weak” position of the digital in modernist studies; and Wai Chee Dimock on the weakness of Faulkner in Japan, identifying the South’s defeat in the Civil War with Japan’s defeat in World War II as each experienced the position of being occupied by the victors. Each of these essays takes up the concept of weakness differently; each exhibits anything but the “weakness” of amateurism in their strongly solid, highly professional and carefully documented argumentation.

One reason I see strength rather than weakness in these fine articles on different forms of weakness might well be that I see the evolution of modernist studies since the 1960s very differently from Saint-Amour. He is right, I believe, to say that the spatial, temporal, and cultural expansions in the field christened by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz as “the new modernist studies” began long before their PMLA assessment in 2008 (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 446).[9] Discounting the transformative effects of “single-author fields” on modernist studies at large, Saint-Amour credits the expansions in modernist studies first, to poststructuralist theory; and second, to the “establishment of postmodernism as a term and field of study. . . by scholars who wrote first books on modernist writers and sought to canonize later works through analogies to modernism” (446). What this history sidelines is the early impact of feminist criticism, African American criticism, LBTQ criticism, popular culture studies, and postcolonial criticism, which from the 1970s well into the 1990s insisted on a fundamental rethinking of modernist studies. At times, poststructuralist theory and postmodernism were woven into these approaches, especially in the post-1990 development of queer theory in modernist studies. But to credit the fields of poststructuralism and postmodernism with the transformation of modernist studies is to misread the history of the field and distort the way in which the Modernist Studies Association, founded in 1999, opened up the field to a wide variety of issues, theories, and methods.

Saint-Amour has contributed greatly to the temporal, spatial, aesthetic, political, and methodological expansions of modernist studies. But a certain ambivalence toward these expansions underlies his embrace of “weak theory.” Weakness is in some ways attractive precisely because it modulates what he fears—that modernist expansions are expansionist, threatening to reproduce an imperialist logic, a too-strong swallowing up of other fields, particularly as they move into non-Western parts of the world and other time periods outside the temporal boundaries of Western modernity. Paradoxically, his meditations on the attractions of weakness ends with a section called “Embers,” an allusion perhaps to his longing for the sureties of his early training in “the project of neo-Marxist cultural materialism and political formalism” (454). He doesn’t name Fredric Jameson here, but he might as well have, for Jameson’s influential contributions to modernist studies in early books like Marxism and Form, The Political Unconscious and Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism are prime contributors to that project.[10]

Theory as Totality

Totality is one of the embers Saint-Amour locates in modernist studies, as he worries that “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” (454; my emphasis). Full disclosure here: he uses Planetary Modernisms as his prime example of decoupling “modernity, and consequently modernism, from capitalism,” and concludes that “just taking capitalism off the table as a necessary descriptor is a game changer” (454). Set aside here, for a moment, that the category empire is the necessary descriptor for me of the complex politics, intercultural ferment, and dystopic violence/utopian possibilities of recurrent modernities across the longue durée of time and global spaces.[11] Standing behind Saint-Amour’s desire for a totality that incorporates capitalism in modernist studies is most likely Jameson’s A Singular Modernity, which includes Jameson’s scornful dismissal of “alternative” modernities and insistence on the “fundamental meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself.”[12] The totality of modernity-as-capitalism is not only a “strong” theory in Saint-Amour’s terms; it is also quintessentially a muscular-masculine view of a singular-global modernity that aligns well with Immanuel Wallerstein’s center-periphery model of the capitalist world-system.[13]

The embers of Saint-Amour’s evocation of Jameson’s totality turns into its opposite in the closing sentences of his introduction. In conclusion, he imagines modernist studies as a “group of travelers gathered around dwindling embers. . . , the dwindling having been the real occasion for the gathering. . . . [W]e may be ready to say. . . to one another: modernism is weakness that stays weak” (456). The move from the embers of totality to the embers of weakness recapitulates the binaries that run throughout the essay. Strong/weak is the prevailing opposition, morphing into others that are either fully stated or implied:  immodest/modest; paranoid/reparative; sovereign/not sovereign; dogmatic/provisional; narrow/expansive; canonical/marginal; center-periphery/network; prescriptive/descriptive; muscular-masculine/queer. Given such loaded oppositions, no wonder the aim is for “weakness that stays weak.”

I feel boxed in by these strong/weak binaries, not because they call out for deconstruction but because I believe they miss the strengths of the theories and the theorists that have generated the opening up of modernist studies to the aesthetic, philosophical, and political transformations accomplished by those who are outside the closed system of the muscular-masculine. Perhaps Saint-Amour would argue that strong theorists can (and should) produce weak theories. But I am objecting to characterizing either the theorists or the theories as weak. Not only has it taken great strength for many kinds of outsiders to redefine the field but I also do not think the new theories of modernity/modernism are themselves weak. Instead, I feel alienated from the overarching binary itself: strong as totality; weak as provisionality.

Theory as Generative Openings

Perhaps my alienation begins in a different understanding of what constitutes “theory.”[14] I do not regard theory as a more or less closed system (a totality), but rather as a set of interrelated generalizations that allow for a new understanding of a group of specific instances. In this sense, all theories are provisional, probalistic, and open to being replaced by other theories, especially by significant shifts in basic paradigms. The test of a given theory is its usefulness, its generative qualities. What phenomena come into focus as a result of a given theory? What phenomena are left out by the theory? To think of theory in this light is to ask what becomes knowable through the lens of a given theory. To speak of a theory as generative is to suggest that a theory can open new doorways for understanding; even as it might well close off other pathways. Think of the distinctions between Newtonian physics and Einstein’s relativity theory; both have been generative for their times and places, both having significant explanatory power; and both being supplemented by later physics, like quantum mechanics and string theory. Different theories of modernity, for example, explain different phenomena, differently—from the Wallersteinian and Jamesonian views of modernity-as-capitalism, increasingly global, to the geomodernisms of Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel’s pathbreaking volume, Geomodernisms, to the many reformulations of alternative, polycentric, recurrent, and multiple modernities that have emerged in the wake of the transnational turn, and so forth.[15]

I do agree that some theories are more totalizing than others; some take dogmatic forms, closing off other perspectives. I do prefer that theories remain provisional, open to tests of their usefulness as well as assertions of their inadequacies. I do not mean to suggest a happy pluralism of theories—any theory as good as any other. But I do mean to argue for an approach to theory that asks what explanatory power a given theory has, what archives it draws on, what archives does it leave out, and to what uses has it or can it be put. With such questions in mind, a given theory is not strong or weak; rather it is more or less generative; it has more or less explanatory power. And such variations in a given theory have a politics. It is, I believe, important to ask what political stakes or consequences a theory might have. Who or what is included in any given theory of modernity, for example? Who or what is excluded? It is not paranoid to ask such questions. It may well be provisional, open-ended, and reparative. It may come from a position of vulnerability in the field of modernist studies, but it is not weak. I argue, instead, for a strong provisionality.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” At the heart of persistence is the strength of resilience.


Cyraina Johnson-Roullier:  Weak Modernism and the Epistemology of Race + Gender

No single genre can dominate the field at all times, if only because the field, as a fully integrated and fully rational entity, simply does not exist.

                                                                                                            —Wai Chee Dimock[1]

To begin, I shall be both blunt and brutally honest: for me the question of weak theory is one that practically screams its proximity to racial and gendered concerns. In particular, I want to draw attention to what is more often than not the unauthorized epistemology which is the only way to address them in their often ignored, denied, neglected or unrecognized yet inescapable closeness  to each other. Intersectional approaches to the contrary, discussions of race and gender often remain discussions of race and gender, race and/or gender, perhaps race or gender, but rarely anything like race through gender, or gender through race, or the even more problematic race in gender and vice-versa. Whatever preposition is used to connect the cultural intricacies of race to those of gender, or the cultural intricacies of gender to those of race, one must more often than not face the powerful, yet invisible, separation of the two terms along the lines of race and gender, never more accurately described than in the title of the seminal feminist anthology But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Blacks are Men, All the Women Are White, All the Men are Black: Black Women’s Studies.[2] Even here, however, in a text purporting to analyze and theorize the problem by articulating it in language, the problem itself is rearticulated and reinstated as a result of that very language, and there seems no way to completely avoid it. Although this has been a discipline-wide issue, its permutations in modernist studies have not been too different from what I have described above: race and gender may often be mentioned in the same breath conjoined by the preposition and, but when push comes to shove, in-depth discussion more often than not devolves onto the issue of race or gender. This is a problematic often only defied when it concerns analysis of black female modernists, such as Nella Larsen or Jessie Fauset, who are also largely overdetermined by race in doing double-duty as artists of the Harlem Renaissance, or perhaps in the analysis of Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha.”

Race + Gender > Sovereignty

What I have described here is actually a problem born of strong theory. It is and has been within strong theory that race and gender have been created as categories of knowledge. Using strong theory as an epistemological model, both race, in the form of African-American literature, and gender, in the form of second-wave feminism, entered the academy in the early 1970s, and did so in the same way—had to do so in this way—by establishing themselves around what was purported to be a stable object of study, around which various truth claims could be made and developed. Created in strong theory, then, each field itself became strong in what Wai Chee Dimock would call its own sovereignty. As representatives of sovereign fields of study, race and gender reflect categories of analysis that have had discipline-wide influence, making their presence known in modernist studies in early works such as Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank and Bonnie Kime Scott’s Gender of Modernism.[3] In the thirty years since these works saw the light of day, modernist studies has exploded with a wealth of scholarly endeavor seeking to examine works and problems related to these issues. Yet, despite the encroachments of intersectional approaches, the invisible epistemological hold of strong theory continues to demand adherence to the requirements of field sovereignty—that race or gender be given precedence—or else how can the field which either term represents continue to exist?

The Field Unhinged

This question brings us back to the epigraph with which I began. In light of Dimock’s view, I would advance these questions: does the field exist? Must it exist? What happens if we peer around the corner, into the darkness beyond what we know as “field,” to determine and explore what might be found there? In the case of the problematic I have been describing here, one thing that might be found is the equation race + gender—not and, and/or, or, through or even in, but race in addition to gender, or gender in addition to race. What is the epistemological reality of race + gender? How can it be accessed, described, understood? What might it mean in and to modernist studies? Such questions pose important difficulties when approached from the perspective of a strong theory whose intent is to form a sovereign, inviolable intellectual space which not only creates, but establishes, protects and polices the ideas by which it is described. From such a perspective, the epistemological reality of race + gender is one of impossible distortion, an unauthorizable anomaly that can—that must—be vehemently refused. In such refusal, however, there is also much to be lost, as the act of refusal camouflages a roaring silence within which is to be found all to which a strong theory would deny access, but which yet offers a complicated web of intellectual opportunity to the courageous and industrious scholar, unafraid of its often daunting complexity.

Modernity Unbound

Paul Saint-Amour mentions as one of the ways in which the special issue brings weak theory to modernist studies the identification of the fact that modernism occurred as a result of “a post-Nietzschean weakening in the philosophies of history and aesthetics” that was “partially written over by the energetic masculinism of the figures and works first canonized in the field.”[4] This “heroic ‘men of 1914’ script,” he argues,  “likely compounded baseline cultural and institutional prejudices in effacing writers who were women, sexual dissidents, disabled subjects and racial others, or who identified with those minoritized subjects in their work, leaving it to later generations of scholars to attempt to undo that erasure through recovery projects.” He goes on to describe a second assertion grounding the special issue, which is that the weakening of the term “modernism” has allowed scholars to “ask questions other than ‘But is it really modernist?’—questions that sometimes permit other strong terms, commitments, and/or analytics to come to the fore” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 441).

Taking Saint-Amour’s view one step further, that the weakening of modernism brought modernist studies to modern discourse, I want to assert that it is because of this that the meaning and significance of modernity could then begin to be fully and productively investigated. Weak theory thrives in the analysis of modernity, as it is here that the field must rely not on coherence (as Saint-Amour notes) but on non-coherence, ambiguity, indeterminacy, multiplicity—in short, all the things that a field is not. Weak modernism highlights modernism/modernity, a relation that is simultaneously strong and weak. It is the name of our journal, and it embodies this central problem: what was once a stable, strong, coherent object of study around which modern studies was built, yoked by a slash to an unstable, weak, incoherent term, incoherent, at least, in the epistemological terms set by the traditional university. If the weakening of modernism, as Saint-Amour tells us, enabled exploration of other, perhaps silenced commitments, it also brought modernity more prominently to the fore, thereby allowing it to gain in strength, albeit  a different strength, we might say, quite unlike that of a sovereign field. Dimock’s description of genre works well to describe the intellectual purlieu made available to modern scholars undertaking the study of modernity:

These dispersed, episodic webs of association, not supervised and not formalizable, make it an open question what is primary, what is determinative, what counts as the center and what counts as the margins. A paradigm such as this . . . cannot support a system of sovereign axioms. Instead, the frequency, diversity, and centrifugal nature of the spin-offs suggest not only that the points of contact will change from moment to moment, but that the field itself might not even be governed by a single morphology, an ordering principle generalizable across the board and presetting its hierarchies. . . . What emerges instead is something more scattered, chaotic, contextually vacillating, not easily generalizable, and not yielding any theory with enough predictive (or even descriptive) authority to be called sovereign. (Dimock, “Weak Theory,” 737–38).

This disappearance of field-based sovereign authority creates enormous possibility, from which new and innovative intellectual approaches emerge. If an older form of epistemological authority is in question, so too is the need to authorize one’s intellectual voice according to old epistemological rules. Race and gender can become the altered epistemological entity of race + gender, in this way abruptly breaking free of much of the silent (and silenced) cultural and intellectual baggage still largely attendant upon either term.

Becoming Modern, Part I

I want now to point to another incarnation of that cultural baggage, in the form of what Robyn Wiegman has called “visual modernity,” a practice that could be aligned with weak theory in its effort to deny the power of traditionally defined categories of race and gender to adequately describe what are for her “America’s quite violent and damaging historical exclusions.”[5] In this way, Wiegman begins to carve out the enormous complexity of what it means to fully explore the problem of race + gender. From a weak theory standpoint, placing the visual on the table is a crucial move, as it opens the door to much that is silent, silenced and therefore invisible within the paradigms of strong theory. In other words, strong theory’s power is not just epistemological, but physical as well, in terms of how, why and where it categorizes bodies according to how they are visually understood. Its rigid classification of bodies is largely invisible, and fastidiously policed. In weak theory, this invisible categorization and classification begins to become visible as soon as the artificially imposed epistemological boundaries of strong theory weaken and start to crumble. From the vantage point of modernity as a weak form of modernism, then, my own physical experience of “visual modernity” suddenly becomes significant, relevant, but—most importantly—able to be seen.

For me, becoming modern began with a number of tough choices framed within a “visual modernity” of which I was at the time unaware. In those days, the mid-1980s, modernism’s strength had yet to be questioned. Yet even in this strength, it still offered a way out from what seemed the more oppressive intellectual structures of American or British Literature. So even though I encountered much pressure to specialize according to national frameworks, modernism offered freedom from strictly national, and what had seemed to me more limiting, considerations. Modernism was, after all, an international movement, and therefore within it, national borders were, if nothing else, available to be crossed. So my first choice was not to specialize, but rather to learn as much as possible about both American and British Literature in relation to the modern. Without my fully knowing it at the time, this choice automatically made another one, which was not to specialize in African-American Literature—something for which the pressure mounted year by year, until it came almost to outright intellectual fisticuffs. But that decision was then followed by other, equally difficult, yet equally necessary, decisions. At that time there was no Modernist Studies Association to join and thereby provide professional credibility. Modernism was a sub-field, and therefore seeking to professionalize within it, as opposed to the strong national literatures, automatically made one epistemologically weak. Then, to be modern in a professional sense meant being either a Joycean or a Woolfian, and the annual conferences for each author were scheduled so close together as to make choosing between them a necessary act. A very few scholars managed to do both, but these were not young junior scholars needing to prove themselves in a tough field; . I chose Joyce, not at first realizing to what extent this would mean leaving behind my interests in feminism and women’s literature, at least for a time.

Then there was the most difficult choice of all. though this was unbeknownst to me at the time. This was to accept that by making the choice to be modern, I would be moving as a lone African American into a world that was largely white, sometimes hostile, at times unfriendly, but most often, just indifferent. As I later realized, this choice meant that for most of my years as a junior professor, I would not be able to form the kinds of networks that my colleagues did; I would not meet other young African American scholars, since the vast majority of these were at different conferences, and the interpretive approaches I took, which often heavily criticized ideas that had been formed in strong theory, would not be readily accepted. But on the other hand, it also meant that intellectually, I would be free to follow my own inclinations, free to create my own intellectual life as I myself desired, and not as the world around me expected. And these expectations were as high as the choice I made was costly: for at least the first five years that I was on the tenure track, I received invitations from English departments at universities all over the country to apply for their positions in African American literature, all coupled with extremely attractive salaries, benefits and perks, and all of which I refused until, once it became known that I had taken a different intellectual path, the invitations trickled to a halt, and then eventually stopped. Even in my own department at the University of Notre Dame, there it was: the only other African American in the department was someone who, though he had originally trained as a Faulkner scholar, had put this aside in order to offer himself to the department as a specialist in African American Literature. This is not meant to critique that choice, nor to hold it up to ridicule. It was a choice made most likely from an abiding sense of racial pride and responsibility. But it was his choice, and not mine. I saw myself as a modernist, and a modernist I would be.

Becoming Modern, Part II: Something Obscured in Strong Theory

W. E. B. Du Bois’s ideas of double-consciousness and the veil (as an invisible yet totally impassible racial wall that existed between black and white Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century) become relevant here, though in a different way than that in which they are usually encountered.[6] Du Bois’s ideas have an epistemological identity which, though normally obscured, can be vividly seen in the pressure I experienced to become an African Americanist. A couple of moments on my way to becoming modern will help to illustrate this. On arriving at the State University of Buffalo (where I had gone to follow Rodolphe Gasché, a top deconstructionist) as the only black student in the department’s PhD program, I was met by a professor who presented me with a copy of Henry Louis Gates’s Race, Writing and Difference along with an enormous smile, full of expectation, and some comments about what it was like to study African-American Literature in the department.[7] The encounter left me with the impression of having been interpellated totally incorrectly—of having been assigned a subject position completely based on a (visual) racial understanding, rather than on my own personality or background. Coming from a rural Midwestern middle- to upper-middle-class town known far and wide in the 1960s for its racial progressiveness (this was Yellow Springs, Ohio, the home of Antioch College), where neither race nor gender had been an issue, and in which I had been largely sheltered from America’s egregious racial history, my subjective understanding of myself as an African American and my professor’s understanding of African Americanness collided to create within me a palpable sense of a very different kind of double-consciousness than that which DuBois describes, centered on an internal knowledge of misrecognition, something which I call “interconsciousness.” 

As I continued my academic career, my awareness of the existence of this central misrecognition, of which I knew others would most likely not be aware, led me far away from American Literature and American Studies, even though I was very much intellectually invested in both. From the perspective of certain misrecognition, I viewed the object of study, America, with distrust and skepticism, and a powerful rejection of its incorrect interpellation of my subjectivity. I came to both fields only much later, after my graduate studies, when America as object of study itself began to encounter weak theory, in the form of radical attack as a result of the culture wars.

Weak Theory Made Strong—With a Difference

Dimock asks an important question: “What could be said for a critical practice that does not even try to clinch the case?” (“Weak Theory,” 736).  Weak theory makes possible the recognition, analysis and/or critique of the idea of “clinching the case,” or the imperative to do so, as this is both the bridge and the key to the strength of strong theory. In weak theory, not “clinching the case” is both its weakness and its strength. In the weak approach, paradox becomes far more important than singular power—the weaker the theory (the less it seeks to establish and broadcast its sovereign hold over an idea), the stronger. And it is, finally, in this refusal to “clinch the case” that intellectual emphasis can be placed where it really belongs, that is, on the effort to continually excavate and explore the many new visions revealed by such refusal, open only to those with the strength to look.  


Cliff Mak: Steps to a Weak-ology of Mind


As someone more temperamentally attracted to the ostensible systematicity of strong theoretical claims, I am nevertheless engaged by the critical openness afforded by weak theory. In particular, I am continually sobered by what Paul Saint-Amour highlights as the counterintuitive part of Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s understanding, via Tomkins, of all theory as affect theory: “affect theories that fail to minimize negative affect tend to become stronger, compensating for their failure by attempting to unify a wider and wider range of disparate phenomena. A failed affect theory, that is, hopes to ward off further refutation and humiliation by securing a larger territory against bad surprises.”[1]


As someone whose work in modernism also has a foot in critical animal studies and the posthumanisms, I return frequently to Sedgwick’s reminder that the “hypervigilant antiessentialism and antinaturalism” of theory (as it was practiced in the early 2000s, at least) will “require the sacrifice of qualitative differences among . . . different affects.”[2] Insofar as animal studies both depends upon and earns it keep by deconstructing the human-animal dualism, it often risks flattening out qualitative difference as such, collapsing different classes of life into a reified “animality,” “creatureliness,” or, even, “ecology.”


Animal studies’ reckoning with weak theory, then, has not only been a long time coming but also, in a sense, constitutes a part of weak theory’s absolute horizon. If, in their strongest formulations, the environmental humanities (or the larger disciplinary grouping that takes the discourses and representations of human-non-human relation as its field) proceed by decrypting their objects—the human in the animal, the animal in the human, the agency of the thing, the determinism of human agency—they ultimately run up against the fact of their own weakness when put into practice. This is because such apparent hermeneutic symmetries belie the asymmetry of their application: not only is one side of the object of these theories–the animal, the environment, the ecological whole–able to proceed, persist, and, even, survive the other side in utter indifference towards the latter’s discursivity, but it is one mark of the latter’s ultimate efficacy that it become irrelevant. As Gregory Bateson puts it at the very end of Steps to an Ecology of Mind: “surely the mountain lion when he kills the deer is not acting to protect the grass from overgrazing. . . . We live then in a world different from that of the mountain lion–he is neither bothered nor blessed by having ideas about ecology. We are.”[3]


The environmental humanities stand not just as an example of affect theory, then, vis-à-vis the “affective asymmetry” (to take a key phrase from Grace Lavery’s essay in the special issue) of critical interest and ethical care vs. the indifference and autonomy of the non-human world but also as an example of how, per Tomkins’ principle, “affect theory must be effective to be weak.”[4] Indeed, it is because something like modernist animal studies is prone to being ineffective that it has become theoretically stronger. Rather than admit that something like animal interiority is plausibly beyond the scope of modernism’s toolbox, modernist animal studies has often dug its heels in and taken many of the modernists’ questionable attempts to depict animal interiority (Virginia Woolf’s Flush, especially) as successful applications of various modernist devices (defamiliarization, say, or epiphany). It has done so in the name of modernist ideologemes that it expects to be taken at face value (such as a Levinasian ethics of encountering the radical difference of the Other) and not as the simple expression of a projective paranoia trying to ward off hermeneutic humiliation.


If strong theory reifies, weak theory can diminish the gap between subject and object, input and output. We find this elaborated in Lavery’s essay on Matthew Arnold, for example, which reintroduces us to Arnoldian criticism not as disinterested, as Arnold is conventionally received, but as already embedded within the social condition of being criticized. We can also see it in action with Benjamin Kahan’s contribution on sexual etiologies, which not only takes etiology as its object but also, punningly, etiolation as its method, approaching an already-weak object in an even weaker fashion.[5] It is also used as a criticism of weak theory: as Aaron Jaffe and Michael F. Miller (following Wendy Chun and Boris Groys) suggest in their response, the use of the network as a model for weakly-organized modernist objects is eventually mirrored by the shape of scholarly practice itself. For Jaffe and Miller, however, the network model is not a “value-neutral preserve” but is, instead, “tacitly prescriptive,” this kind of seeming disingenuousness ultimately amounting, even, to a form of “virtue signaling.” Yet surely we should also remember what is by now common wisdom that the act of calling out another party for virtue signaling is itself a form of virtue signaling. In this way, strong theory, too, comes around to co-mingling subject and object.


We might even suggest that the particular kind of strong theory made anxious by weak theory can only operate in bad faith, proceeding as if the clarity afforded by strong theory were affectively unmotivated, as if it were not just reproducing the ideologemes it had set out to decrypt. And in this way, it also reproduces the bad faith relation so much of canonical modernism has to itself. What is the substance of the pathos of the moderns, after all, if not the affective asymmetry produced by an ideology that discursively posits the failure of discursivity in the face of modernity, that aesthetically represents the futility of aesthetics? To echo Lavery once more: modernism is eminently more fun for one to do than to have done to one.


It’s this bad faith in which we might become more interested. In how the asymmetrical structure of modernism, modernist studies, and modernist animal studies in their strongest articulations nevertheless produce not just negative affects but also “weak,” often self-defeating forms of agency and modes of experience. And in how weak modernism, weak theory, and a kind of Batesonian (that is, cybernetic) ecology of mind are not only able to meet such bad faith on its own terms and sublate it into a form of good faith practice but also to do so simply by avowing their own limitations.


By depressurizing both field and method, weak modernism minimizes the feedback loops that result in self-reinforcing, self-effacing bad faith and thus allows us to pay more attention to the individual forms of agency, affect, and relation otherwise qualitatively fused together and disavowed by the very bad faith they can all-too-easily summon and structure. Both within and between modernist objects and between modernist scholars and their objects, we are already familiar with some of these more classical forms, such as paranoia and shame. But to these we might add some others, especially as named, explored, and gestured towards in the essays of the special issue and some of the responses so far. For example, codependency, as Wai Chee Dimock names the relationality that results from understanding the field of modernism as a “reparative process still incomplete” that gives modernist texts, no longer conceived of as the “sovereign product of singles authors,” a “second chance.”[6] And addiction, both as an important object of Kahan’s study of sexual etiologies and, in its tautological refusal of causal explication—one is a drunk because one is a drunk—as a key to a weak theory of etiology and, perhaps, to a larger, weaker, theory of modernism (563). (I am also thinking of Sedgwick’s essay on the rhetoric of addiction, “Epidemics of the Will,” on the one hand, and her and Adam Frank’s “addiction” to reading Tomkins, on the other).[7] I am also taken by Madelyn Detloff’s countenancing of the toxicity of our literary objects in her response to the special issue: “To love is to open one’s self to something/someone outside of one’s control. In literary studies, to love the work of an author . . . is to open one’s self to the taint of the author’s lapses into toxic ideology.” At the same time, we might also spend more time reflecting on how openness to toxicity, even without apologizing for it, does not mean that the love that impels it is not already kind of fucked up.


Finally, it is because weak theory comes so close to bad-faith formulations that it is interesting. In terms of modernist animals studies: in seriously re-evaluating its own restricted nature as a field, what Bateson would call its own ecological futility, it opens a way to think of modernist studies as weak thought, as a field that not only conceives of the unity of its objects as no more than a matter of family resemblance (per Mark Wollaeger) but more precisely as a collection of objects unified through their asymmetrical relation to other objects and themselves.[8]


Dominick Knowles: Staying Weak

In her special issue article on the “accursed poet,” Sara Crangle describes the “violent and totalizing” ambiguities that plagued Anna Mendelssohn’s political and artistic development during the student riots of May 1968.[1] “Solutions,” Mendelssohn maintains, “are just another form of violence––State violence or revolutionary violence, what’s the difference?” (466). The breadth and gravity of that question, its false choice, led her to abandon the title of “revolutionary” and stop “trying to change the world” (467). Crangle interprets this abandonment as primarily linguistic, citing the phenomenon in which “revolutionary language quickly becomes as conformist, and as violent, as that which it was meant to replace” (467). Yet the escapism of Mendelssohn’s “bucolic” poetry (“I am the flower and the hills and the trees”) is a dead-end as well. As Crangle concludes, “a world of permissible questions and plainly self-evident answers will always be beyond Mendelssohn’s reach” (467). Neither solution nor evasion proves operable. One is either damned to commit the violence one detests or damned for shrinking from it.

Mendelssohn’s poetic dilemma, it seems to me, almost perfectly replicates the damned-if-you-do(n’t) bind of “weak” vs. “strong” theory that causes modernist studies so much anxiety. Paul Saint-Amour, in his introduction to the issue, worries that by “weakening” the definitional strictures of “modernism” (a project most notably espoused by Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms) our work risks becoming “the licensed swoosh, bird, or ghost under which we all do various kinds of globalizing business”––in other words, nothing more than “branded content.”[2] Expressing a similar concern, Yan Tang’s response to the special issue wonders whether projects like Friedman’s actually reinforce “the old problems of ideological and socio-economic structures [that] continue to undergird the new modernist studies in more adaptable and intensified ways through branding and re-branding.” On the one hand, our traditional periodization and aesthetic criteria render unrecognizable those in both “developing” and “western” nations whose modernities have taken shape differently. On the other, the deflation of aesthetic and temporal distinctions risks making modernist studies a kind of multinational conglomerate that stamps the modernist label onto texts with little regard for precise historical conditions or the competing claims of other scholarly fields. Echoing Mendelssohn, we might ask ourselves wearily: weak theory or strong theory, what’s the difference?

Saint-Amour’s and Tang’s responses to this question frame my thinking: first, Tang’s suggestion that the importance of weakness lies in its possible challenge to global capitalism sets the political-economic terrain for the next stage in the weak theory debates. Second, Saint-Amour’s re-imagining of Ezra Pound’s slogan in The ABCs of Reading—“Modernism is weakness that stays weak”—articulates the aspirational nature of his project (“Weak Theory,” 456). These remarks bend the general argument of weak theorists in an unusual direction. Often, weak theory is opposed to Fredric Jameson’s totalizing Marxism, an interpretive form Eve Sedgwick famously called “paranoid reading.”[3] But strong theory, as Tang implies, is also a theory of the strong that seeks to consolidate and preserve the structures of power operative on a geopolitical, intersubjective, and literary-canonical scale. If we accept Tang’s description of global or neoliberal capitalism as the “ultimate enemy and strong theory,” then weak theorists, whether or not they grapple directly with questions of literature and political economy, have an obligation to avoid reproducing the relations of power that inhere both in the brutalities of global capitalism as well as the sovereign epistemic claims of “strong” theory. But, as we learn from Crangle’s work on Mendelssohn, this obligation can’t entail a retreat from the political into “plainly self-evident answers.” What is needed, as Saint-Amour aptly suggests, is a “weakness that stays weak.”

Pensiero Debole: Towards a Praxis of Weakness  

Detailing the juridical practices of the USSR and the Nazi Reich, Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer recounts the disastrous attempts to preserve the constituting power of revolutions (“the violence that posits law”) from the constituted power of sovereign and totalitarian states (“the violence that preserves it”).[4]  He argues, contra Antonio Negri, that isolating the former from the latter is nearly impossible given our current conception of sovereignty as a “strictly political” category (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 44). Instead, the task at hand requires us to expand the scope of the political so that preserving those fleeting but emancipatory components of constituting power becomes a matter of “ontology.” Agamben recognizes that this task is massive:

Only an entirely new conjunction of possibility and reality, contingency and necessity . . . will make it possible to cut the knot that binds sovereignty to constituting power. And only if it is possible to think the relation between potentiality and actuality differently – and even to think beyond this relation—will it be possible to think a constituting power wholly released from the sovereign ban. Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality (beyond the steps that have been made in this direction by Spinoza, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality, a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable. (44)

Agamben prescribes an “ontology of potentiality”—a study of Being about that which has yet to be—answering one paradox with another, denser paradox. In spite of its abstraction, though, his vocabulary should sound familiar to weak theorists: possibility, potentiality, contingency, relation, all these keywords appear in works like Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms and Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents. Those works attempt to respond to the problem of constituting power that plagues older forms of critique by stretching the definitional, temporal, and geographical limbs of modernist studies until they’re held together by mere speculative tendons.

Less developed, however, is the strain of weak theory elaborated by Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo through his philosophy of pensiero debole or “weak thought.” Alongside the important work being done in the wake of Sedgwick’s queer-affective intervention, I’d like to consider another iteration of weakness that follows from Vattimo’s work in his article “Dialectics, Difference, Weak Thought,” and his 2011 book Hermeneutic Communism, written in collaboration with Santiago Zabala. Though he doesn’t reference Homo Sacer directly, Vattimo’s anti-metaphysical philosophy grapples with the paradox of constituting vs. constituted power and, in my view, approaches a realization of Agamben’s “ontology of potentiality.”

According to Vattimo, pensiero debole and its attendant “weak ontology” emerge as a corrective to those theories, regardless of their political alignment, which either presume or conclude the existence of a stable, transhistorical set of truth-values.[5] Moreover, by ignoring the deep political import of philosophical interpretation they are easily taken up by formal structures of power and become complicit in the brutalities of imperialist governments. A critique of John Searle, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal by George Bush just after the invasion of Iraq, serves as Hermeneutic Communism’s opening salvo against “the politics of description.” I take Searle’s philosophy, with its intensely rationalist aspirations, to be roughly equivalent to the “weak” claims of “anti-theory”—new formalism and surface reading in literary studies and the biological essentialism of Steven Pinker’s cognitive psychology. Pensiero debole accuses such “rational politics” of doing the very thing it purports to avoid: papering over enormous metaphysical assumptions with rhetorical modesty. Whereas the strong claims of orthodox Marxism and “high theory” have often ended up emulating the sovereign chokehold from which they hoped to be released, Vattimo condemns this new modesty as a form of weakness amounting to political cowardice.

Pensiero debole behaves differently. Rather than commit an intellectual sleight-of-hand that appeals to the sturdiness of “the world as it is” as an excuse for political disengagement, Vattimo expands the terrain of weakness, taking as its primary object the most vulnerable world populations, “the losers of history . . . those who instead of being framed within the scientific political organization of all beings . . . are left at its margins.”[6] In an important sense, given the explosion of work on these communities developed by black studies, queer, feminist and crip theory, we’ve already heeded Vattimo’s call for decades: I think here of Fanon’s reference in The Wretched of the Earth to the biblical invocation “The last shall be first,” José Muñoz’s queer-aesthetic writings on “disidentification,” or, more recently, Fred Moten’s elaboration of “fugitive planning” in the field of critical race theory.[7]

Methodologically speaking, however, pensiero debole aims for a dispersal of interpretations, none of which make the determinist, depth-plumbing claims of “theory” or presume to describe some empirically verifiable reality. In this way it attempts interpretation “as a process of weakening” in order to serve the populations targeted by necropolitical regimes as well as relax the theoretical chokehold that ostensibly emancipatory approaches have placed on their objects of inquiry. Despite its (perhaps overwrought) constructivist bent, the thrust of Vattimo’s “ontology of potentiality” involves linking the enduring prospect of weakness to its dependence on the material action of political movements. After reviewing the old paradox in which it is only when “the revolution is considered completed . . . that it becomes despotic power, hegemony, and violence,” Vattimo assures us that the “fact that its complete realization is not imaginable is in part a function of the indissoluble link between theory and praxis: only by approaching the realization of the ideal will its traits appear more clearly” (Hermeneutic Communism, 117). Vattimo’s work illuminates the relationship between theorizing weakness and practicing politics, a problematic essential to modernism’s effort to become “a weakness that stays weak.” He privileges the latter, positioning the praxis of social movements as the center around which theory might pivot, since only these material acts can weaken the structures of political thought that allow for theory’s expansion.[8]   If the weakening of modernism’s theories has led to anxiety about its politics, Vattimo’s insight implies that this theoretical weakening should be complemented by a renewed interest in the strength of modernist praxis.

Some Weak Modernists

Those who are, like me, hopeful about weak theory’s potential but worried about its politics might feel some relief by taking Vattimo’s suggestion at face value. What would it look like to assemble an archive, a syllabus, or even a reading list of modernist writers who have put praxis before theory (or art)? In her response to the special issue, Madelyn Detloff describes Virginia Woolf’s “Mark on the Wall” as evidence that she is a “paradigmatic ‘weak theorist.’” Following her remark, I’d like to end by imagining some other modernists (a term, of course, interpreted weakly) who might gather under the shifting sign of pensiero debole. Included in this list might be writers like Lola Ridge, the physically frail, financially impoverished anarchist revolutionary whose involvement with radical politics is inextricable from her poetry extolling the human discharge of capitalism. Or George Oppen, who abandoned poetry for twenty-five years in order to organize with the Communist Party and the Popular Front. If we take a cue from Susan Friedman’s expansion of modernism’s timeline, contemporary examples abound: Anne Boyer, Jillian Weise, and Wendy Trevino are but a handful of exemplary artist-thinkers who write from and about weakness while making strong political claims about the material conditions of those living on capitalism’s margins. They offer compelling examples of pensiero debole at its best.

I’ll close with a brief reading of “When the Lambs Rise Up Against the Bird of Prey,” the second lyric essay in Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (2018). A poetic warning about the strength of weakness, Boyer’s essay cautions that “the lamb is different” from the bird of prey, whose “education is in desiring, and its form of desire is as narrow as wanting to taste.”[9] Rather than abide by “the stupid logic of dinner,” the lamb “does not learn by following desire or refining it: the lamb learns by understanding the world as a system, in all its variation and relation, so that it may effectively remain alive inside it” (19). What I take Boyer to mean is that the lamb’s radical lambness lies in its ability to distill a singular weakness along matrices of other lambs, consolidating without hierarchy the energy erupting from within a state of prey. By mitigating the discrepancy between collective endurance and possible threat to the individual body, the lamb’s state of prey resonates with Agamben’s “ontology of potentiality.” The dual potentiality of violence and survival, rather than being subsumed by actuality and necessity, becomes the foundational element through which plentitude might be conferred upon the weak.

With this in mind, I wonder if lambness might provisionally act as the fluid interpretive category to which pensiero debole leads modernist studies. If so, then in order for weak theory and / as literary critique to offer effective description and interpretation, as well as a bulwark against the deceitful weakness-claims of global capitalism, it cannot allow our knowledge-production to transform into what Carolyn Lesjak calls “neutral knowingness,” a kind of dead-trout epistemology all-too-easily co-opted by state or corporate interests.[10] Instead, through “the politics of shared debility,” as Saint-Amour terms it, weak theory has to become profoundly attuned to textual, political, and affective states of enervation (“Weak Theory,” 456). So that, in Boyer’s words, we might finally notice the “monuments in our shared perception of quivers” (“When the Lambs,” 25).


Pamela Thurschwell: Weak, Reparative, Messianic


Sometime in the 1990s I went with friends to see Abel Ferrarra’s film Bad Lieutenant. We emerged shell-shocked from the theatre, unable to do anything except repeat in sing-song voices, “Damn, that was one bad lieutenant. That lieutenant was bad!” Our movie review echoed in my head as I sat down to try and write about weak theory. Damn, that was one weak theory. That theory was weak. Harvey Keitel’s lieutenant was bad—really, really bad—but wasn’t he also just a reflection of the fact that all lieutenants are bad? Is that one theory over there weak, for better or worse, or is all theory weak? Are we talking about weak theory, making a case for its many uses (as shown by the impressive array of articles and topics in the special issue) or arguing against the abandonment of grander paranoid theories/narratives of modernity, because we are really worrying that the theorizing (weakly or strongly) and writing and criticizing we do, is weak or quietist at a historical moment when what we need is impeachment and second referendums, or mass strikes and climate change action, or redistribution of the wealth and revolution? We need collective actions that put spokes in the grinding wheels of Capital and the uglier and uglier faces of patriarchy and violent, state-sanctioned racism and nationalism. Forget the theory; cut to the (loud and strong) practice.

But is the response I just outlined a self-hating one that ignores both what we do well and what we are good for, by focusing on where we fear that we fail? The “we” I am addressing or interpellating here is quite specific and potentially inaccurate, so let me change it to a “you” with which you can identify or disidentify. You are reading this response in Modernism/modernity, the online platform of an academic journal. You are probably an academic, or academic adjacent, and work in or around modernism or theory. Some of you have secure tenure-track jobs; many of you do not, and are trying to get more job security, or are giving up on the likelihood of this happening. Many of you are fighting battles on picket lines and elsewhere about the precaritization of the profession while marking too many essays, trying to pay off student loans, wrestling with increasing administrative demands that emerge from paranoid feelings and panicked economic structures at every level of the academy. Most of you care a lot about your students, the kind of education they are getting and how they are maintaining their mental and material health in these bleak times. Many of you are working for political and social-justice causes on multiple levels. Many of you are also trying to write stuff, and in the process engaging with specific scholarly debates within modernism and other fields. Whenever we say “what we do” there are a lot of balls in the air. Arguments about the relative weakness or strength of critique may seem, on the one hand, potentially dismissive of local forms of scholarly work, close historical contextualization, close reading, and archival research; this might make us feel bad about thinking too small. On the other hand, unless I missed it, grand narratives are not back in fashion, except insofar as they are. As Paul Saint-Amour puts it in his introduction, “capitalism . . . is the ultimate strong theory without a theorist, the ultimate sovereign field without a sovereign.”[1]  A strong theory of capitalism as it intersects with racism, misogyny, heterosexism, transphobia, and climate change denial might be too abstract and coherent to describe the messy and contingent worlds and cultures we inhabit, and yet some days it’s hard to feel anything but that we are marching towards this theory’s orchestrated disasters. (This morning, the morning I finished writing this, forty-nine people were killed by a racist gunman in a New Zealand mosque. What is happening on the day you read this?)

Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s frustration with critique when she wrote “Paranoid and Reparative Reading” rested on her perception of a stranglehold on critical thinking by post-structuralist, Foucauldian, and Marxist binary/paranoid modes of thought, in which the operative critical affect was “there must be no surprises.” Accepting the weakness of theory is a way of admitting there always will be surprises. As Saint-Amour points out, Sedgwick’s ideas were at least in part a theory of how to manage the emotional cost of envisioning totality:

[A]ll theories… are affect theories in that they seek to maximize positive and minimize negative affect on the part of the theorist, who could be Freud or one of his   analysands, a tenured Marxist or a member of the global precariat. But then comes the counterintuitive part: affect theories that fail to minimize negative affect tend to become stronger, compensating for their failure by attempting to unify a wider and wider range of disparate phenomena. A failed affect theory, that is, hopes to ward off further refutation and humiliation by securing a larger territory against bad surprises. If we go along with Sedgwick in seeing orthodox Marxism as a strong theory, we might say that it tends to become increasingly totalizing, coherentist, and teleological in proportion as it fails to prevent Marxists from feeling shitty about the persistence of capitalism. (“Weak Theory,” 444)

If, as Sedgwick claims, paranoid theory’s aim is to prevent bad surprises, then the response of the paranoid critic (often Marxist but there are plenty of other flavors as well), is to say “I told you so” or “read my tweet from two years ago.” To bring in a richly accurate, popular feminist theory about the way the public sphere functions, mansplaining is always, amongst other things, an attempt to control the field of knowledge. The anxiety evident in the scene of mansplaining is similar to the totalizing perspective of the paranoid theorist; shutting down discourse, filling the space with your words, implies that you are pretending you know what comes next and that it is what you have always known. There are few question marks in the original paranoid hermeneuticians, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, but from historical distance this might be easier to forgive. It’s not that we don’t need strong theory, but we also need ways of making it be wrong. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen (a strong theorist), we need to find the crack in everything to make sure we are inviting the light in.[2] Or to turn to another strong theorist:

My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is danger­ous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apa­thy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism.[3]

For Michel Foucault, recognising danger, rather than badness, involves a different tilt toward the future. “Hyper and pessimistic activism” might even resemble the newly awakened vigilance of the infant inhabiting Melanie Klein’s depressive position: wake up from your nap and find something to do; recognise your mom’s failings and then try to patch her up.


From this angle the strong theorist (in my caricature here, the mansplainer who said it all two years ago in a tweet) might have their weaknesses. But is the weak theorist then necessarily strong?[4] One example of weak theory exhibiting its strengths in this Modernism/modernity issue is the way in which it shows how traditionally feminine “weak” characteristics are redeployed in feminist modernist artistic production. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde borrow Kate Zambreno’s term “obliterature,” showing how it “draws attention to the gendered formation of literary value while also denoting the casual minor, repurposed, and ephemeral writing expelled from literary criticism’s traditional purview.”[5] They analyse how Woolf’s amateur scrapbook and collage methods in shaping Three Guineas are integral to her structural critique of the violent professional institutions that powerful men build and fortify with the idea of expertise. Similarly, Micir and Vadde show how in the experimental criticism/fan writing of Zambreno’s Heroines (2012) “error and even failure to achieve certain standards of correctness can be intellectually and aesthetically enabling” (“Obliterature,” 520). The light that comes through the cracks in the inevitably weaker-than-it-wants-to-be edifice is, I would argue, what makes art possible. That relation between the (masculine) edifice and the (feminine) archive is also apparent in Sara Crangle’s article on the work of Grace Lake/Anna Mendelssohn. Crangle’s creation at Sussex University of the compelling archive of Mendelssohn’s work is a rescue operation in the best sense. Her article speaks to Mendelssohn’s uncomfortable and sometimes heartbreaking inhabiting of a complex of hard identities: the poetic/intellectual/maternal/terrorist woman in the avant-garde; like Micir and Vadde’s “Obliterature” it makes a case for the ways in which any analysis of weak theory, or of activity and passivity in modernism, ignores feminism at its peril.   

To talk about weakness does not require a move to Klein’s notion of the reparative position, but following Sedgwick, Klein can help us understand some of the strength of a weak theory. Sedgwick glosses Klein:

The depressive position is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting: this is the position from which it is often possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or “repair” the murderous part objects into something like a whole—though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any pre-existing whole.[6]

Reparative weak theory may not be sure of all it knows, or even what precisely it is fighting but that does not stop it from looking to what it can do. Reparative weak theory might be able to forgive the ordinary contradictions and irreconcilable pleasures of living in everyday capitalism and everyday patriarchy, even as it keeps trying to build new psychic structures to negotiate new political conditions. Maybe knowing it all makes it harder to get beyond that all to find a space for repair; maybe we don’t need to know it all in order to do some patching. Reparative weak theory might help us imagine a future time at which we might know more, and repair better.

But you might complain (and notice how my hopeful “we” snuck back in there for a minute), who will be left to experience that future time? At this rate, with capitalist realism, climate change, and fascism encroaching, this solution might sound kind of, well, weak. Isn’t Klein’s theory of the positions an individual internal struggle that happens in our psyches? Isn’t the strength and force of strong theory the fact that its explanations function at, or move quickly to, the level of the collective, the historical, the political? In one sense we all know this response is a bit off: the personal is political, and the individual is formed by history, politics, the collective. Judith Butler’s strong theory in Gender Trouble emerges at least in part from the fact that we all get up in the morning and make tiny gestures towards performing our gender, and that the way these tiny gestures get repeated and not repeated snowballs into one of the best strong theories ever..  But in another sense there have to be other answers to what the reparative might look like across time, history, everyday epistemologies of what we understand and how our knowledge forms our actions and resistances in the world.

Messianic (Weak)

Weak theory might be, as evidenced by many of these articles (Benjamin Kahan, Gabriel Hankins, Crangle) a tool for recognizing and grouping together new ways of mapping space and time that become apparent in the interstices of modernist work and modernist lives. Perhaps weak theory is, amongst other things, a way of admitting that “poetry makes nothing happen” while insisting that that “nothing” is something, or can always turn into something, that we can imagine forms of repair taking place at the level of writing and reading poetry, novels, criticism. 

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin posits a “weak messianic power” that belongs to us, the present:

There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.[7]

It’s traditional to end with a Benjamin quote that is beautiful and utterly opaque and makes glancing reference to the subject of your response, and so while complying with tradition I’ll also try and tie Benjamin’s weakness into mine or even ours. For Benjamin, who and where we are now always should remind us that we were at some point a gleam in the past’s eye, part of the prophecy of a generation that looked to us to redeem their crises and catastrophes through revolutionary change, by blasting through homogenous empty time into “the time of the now.” Benjamin likes the blast, and in many senses his historical materialist has to be a strong theorist capable of wresting “tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it” (“Theses,” 255). But we know this strong theorizing also takes place in what might look like some pretty weak ways, through allegory, montage, collecting, sifting around in the rubble of history. That image of the helpless, passive Angel of History that we (we writing in the academy, we writing responses to articles for Modernism/modernity today) might be drawn to again and again, because it tells us something we already know or fear, that poetry and strong theory makes nothing happen, that we may not be able to do more than gape open-mouthed and gaze melancholically, rather than act. Let’s instead, bring a little bit of Klein’s patching up to Benjamin’s temporality.  Let’s think about using our weak theories and our weak messianic power not to disappoint the past. We don’t have the mastery to set up our students to redeem the future (what kind of lunatic strong theorists would we be if we thought we did?) but let’s find ways to bring part objects and positional repairs to our scary, shitty, table. Let’s start by saying that that lieutenant was bad and that theory is weak and let’s see what we can then make happen.

Notes for Susan Stanford Friedman

[1] On February 7, 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used these words to describe Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was continuing to object to the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General because of his record on civil rights. At McConnell’s urging, the Senate voted to silence Senator Warren. Subsequently, “Nevertheless, she persisted” went viral as a feminist symbol of resistance.

[2] Wai Chee Dimock, Weak Planet: From Vulnerability to Resilience, forthcoming, University of Chicago Press; with thanks to her for sharing her introduction and for the stimulations of her earlier work on weak theory cited below.

[3] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Com Tólbín, and W. B. Yeats.” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53, 732, 733­­–37, 751.

[4] Paul Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 438–59.

[5] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 164.

[6] Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 7–8.

[7] Susan Friedman, “Who Buried H.D.? A Poet, Her Critics, and Her Place in ‘The Literary Tradition.’”  College English 36, no 7 (1975): 801–15.

[8] Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930. (1976. London: Penguin, 1991), 639, 636.

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

[10] Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 1971); The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981); Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991). The Political Unconscious greatly influenced my own Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.’s Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 1990) and Joyce: The Return of the Repressed (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). I adapted his framework to read a range of political systems embedded in the aesthetics of modernism, not just capitalism, and in spite of the current critique of so-called “symptomatic” reading, I continue to find Jameson’s The Political Unconscious highly generative.

[11] See especially Chapters 3 and 4 of Planetary Modernisms (84­­–180). Drawing heavily on longue durée historians, I found that the debates about what constitutes “capitalism” and whether or not it existed before European modernity made me question the usefulness of the category for rethinking modernity outside a Eurocentric framework.

[12] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso, 2002), 12.

[13] Immanuel Wallerstein. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[14] I wrote about this more extensively in “Theory,” in Modernism and Theory: A Critical Debate, ed. Stephen Ross (London: Routledge, 2009), 237-45, and “Why Not Compare?”, in Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses ed. Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 34–45.

[15] Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel, eds. Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); See also Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, eds. Geographies of Modernism: Literatures, Cultures, and Spaces (London: Routledge, 2005).


Notes for Cyraina Johnson-Roullier

[1] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53, 737.

[2] Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Blacks are Men, All the Women Are White, All the Men are Black: Black Women’s Studies, 2nd. ed. (New York: Feminist Press, 2015).

[3] Houston Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987); Bonnie Kime Scott, ed., The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990)

[4] Paul K. Saint- Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–­59, 440.

[5] Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 9.

[6] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. David W. Blight and Robert Gooding Williams (1903; Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martins, 1997), 38.

[7] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Race, Writing and Difference (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982).


Notes for Cliff Mak

[1] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 444.

[2] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 93–122, 111.

[3] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 512–13.

[4] Grace Lavery, “On Being Criticized,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 499–516, 509, 510; Silvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition (New York: Springer, 2008), 460.

[5] See Benjamin Kahan, “Volitional Etiologies: Toward a Weak Theory of Etiology, ” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 551–68, 554.

[6] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Network: Faulkner’s Transpacific Reparations,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 587–602, 588.

[7] Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, “Epidemics of the Will,” in Tendencies (London: Routledge, 1994). Sedgwick and Frank, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” 95.

[8] Mark Wollaeger, introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wol- laeger with Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3–22, 12.


Notes for Dominick Knowles

[1] Sara Crangle, “The Agonies of Ambivalence: Anna Mendelssohn, la poétesse maudite,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 461–97, 467.

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

[3] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–51, 147.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 40.

[5] Gianni Vattimo, “Dialectics, Difference, Weak Thought,” in Weak Thought, ed. Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti, trans. Peter Carravetta (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012), 39–52, 50.

[6] Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 65.

[7] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2005), 2; José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 2; Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 5.

[8] I think here of the contemporary Prison Abolition movement, with its calls for “non-reform-reforms” (French Socialist Andre Gorz’s term) that progressively weaken the structures of the prison-industrial complex rather than consolidate state or private power under the guise of improving inmate conditions.

[9] Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018), 19.

[10] Carolyn Lesjak, “Reading Dialectically,” Criticism 55, no. 2 (2013): 233–77, 251.


Notes for Pamela Thurschwell

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

[2] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future (1992)

[3] Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,” in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,1983), 229–52, 231–32.

[4] Holly Laird also discusses the critical interventions of feminist strong theory in her response. To refine my apparent ragging on my Jamesonian/Marxist male friends here, it’s important to remember that Sedgwick’s prime examples of strong theorists are herself, D. A. Miller, and Judith Butler. To be clear about my position, a lot of strong theory is not wrong, some things that are also often mansplained are correct, and many strong theorists are women and gay men.  

[5] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–49, 520.  

[6] 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, 2002), 123–51, 128.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 253­–64, 254.