Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part IV

This installment marks the last planned set of responses—at least for now—to the special issue on Weak Theory. We’ll bring the discussion to a close, in several weeks’ time, by giving the writers from that issue a chance to answer the responses. Many thanks to all who have participated!

Debra Rae Cohen

Omri Moses: Weak Affect, Weak Theory, Dynamic Systems

As the day heaves forward on faked determinations

If it’s not all juxtaposition, she asked, what is the binding agent? . . .

    When it was otherwise quiet all the way around

    You who were given a life, what did you make of it?

                                       —Forrest Gander, “What It Sounds Like[1]

As someone who is not a romantic by sensibility, I don’t fall for people or things easily or very often. This comes with its share of problems. But I have learned the hard way to make do with the milder and more incipient responses to situations that are engaging me—to rest more comfortably with velleities that hover for a while and decisions that feel as though they could have gone the other way. In other words, I have learned to appreciate what weak affect can do. Part of what weak affect allows is the freedom not to have to react strongly to a situation and therefore not to have to react strongly against it. This is itself quite freeing and generative. Speaking broadly, it gives you permission to play along with events when in many cases the cultural scripts you have inherited tell you that you have to commit yourself—for or against. This is as true of literary criticism as of love. Such demand for commitment can cut your response short if you do not yet feel committed. So weak affect—mild amusement, irritation, curiosity, ambivalence, and the like—allow you to keep engaging when you would otherwise probably fall silent or retreat to other, safer spaces.

So I allow myself to give free reign to my weak feelings regarding the debate around the Modernism/modernity special issue on Weak Theory—this, in a scholarly forum bursting with strong outrage and vehement stances on important subjects. Sigh. I can’t hope to respond adequately to such important matters as racism, gender bias, and ecological catastrophe, to name a few topics that have been raised here. As Sianne Ngai puts it in her chapter on Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, when weak feelings, such as irritation, bubble to the surface, the seeming insufficiency of the reaction sometimes gives the sense of occluded agency, affect in its “most politically effete form.”[2] Helga Crane, the protagonist of that novel, is constantly chaffed and irritated by the racial microaggressions directed against her, but her emotional impulses seem disproportionately minor as retorts to these events. Her dysphoric responses seem superficial and, for this reason, appear “least likely to play a significant role in any oppositional praxis or ideological struggle” (Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 181). They do not channel politically prestigious forms of rage and anger. However, the nice thing about weak affects is that they also free her from the burdens of high-mindedness, which would oblige her to commit to a proportional sense of justice. Even as they dampen other more all-consuming affects, they also jump levels, connecting her personal idiosyncrasies with political stances in unusual ways. They are wonderfully unaccountable, meaning surprising, various, generous, and prolific, as well as impetuous and irresponsible.

It is in the spirit of such unaccountable impulses that I write about weak theory. I am willing to court some amount of inarticulateness; after all, this is a blog post. I have to produce it in a hurry. I can allow myself to be true to a blog’s tone of hectoring immediacy. The strong theorist in me will probably attempt to give cover for my weakness by sounding more put together than I might otherwise be—to give form to my worries about this brand of theorizing. But I intend to remain weakly wedded to the forms of weakness on offer, to give due to what they may do well, if only on some occasions, in some spaces. And I will give a little bit of room for my irritation—which Ngai calls “both an excess and a deficiency of anger,” a “surplus or deficit of proportion” (182). I will trace a few threads. If there is a lack of causal connectives, I will work by adjacency.

Defining the Remit of Modernist Studies

I enter this debate with a lot of admiration for the way Paul Saint-Amour and his contributors have approached the concepts of “weak theory,” but with some amount of fatigue at the idea because it simply allows scholars of modernism to repackage a seemingly endless debate about how to define the contours of the field. It also sanctions the sociological bent of the new modernist studies at the expense of other methodologies. In my view, both tendencies of the field now deliver diminishing marginal utility. Saint-Amour invokes the motif of weakness to braid together some defining characteristics of modernism as a movement as well as some of the recent currents of the field that has evolved to study it. His special issue “takes the view that a post-Nietzschean weakening in the philosophies of history and aesthetics was a condition of modernism’s emergence, at least in the European context, as a cultural phenomenon.”[3] Then he makes the case that “modernist studies’s emergence as a field has been concomitant with a steady weakening of its key term, modernism” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 441). The call to make modernism more capacious, geographically and in its historical boundaries, has led critics to expand its definition well beyond its European remit, to “planetary” scales and temporal horizons far beyond 1890–1940. Saint-Amour is careful to peel apart the paradoxes that are involved in calling modernism “weak”—to show the heterogeneity and expressions of “strength” at work in the movement. He also gives voice to debates within the field about the appropriateness of its expansionary tendencies. On this level, it is hard to say that Saint-Amour’s canny effort to appropriate “weakness” as a label really does more than track noteworthy meta-discussions in modernist studies and beyond. Silvan Tomkins defines a “weak theory as “little better than a mere description of the phenomena it purports to explain.”[4] Saint-Amour’s way of triangulating theorists does seem reiterative and descriptive. But does it remain so?

To my mind, the most vital and intriguing thing that weak theory provides is a new way of placing writers and their works in a complex, dynamic system or network. Instead of subscribing to a relentless, deterministic narrative of modernist writing, one that scripts it into a specific formal or historical design, we can look to the emergent, unstable, and constantly evolving connections that writers strike with each other as well as with institutions and gathering spaces that they enter and exit opportunely as well as opportunistically. Following Wai Chee Dimock, we can take inspiration from the “looser, rangier” “more ad hock, more or less episodic . . . meetings occasioned by [writers’] citations and cross-references, and the proliferating threads of association that result.”[5] Dimock uses her strategy to show how Henry James gets reimagined through the contemporary writer Colm Tóibín, only to follow a separate thread that connects both to W. B. Yeats and his Abbey Theater, which in turn puts James’s Irishness into more focused view. Or, in her piece for the Weak Theory issue, she asks us to connect the psychosocial and geopolitical predicament of the postbellum American South, as conceived by William Faulkner, with the humiliating defeat that Japan suffered at the hands of Americans in World War II.[6] To do this, she tracks the impromptu arguments that Faulkner made while he happened to be on assignment as part of the State Department’s Exchange of Persons Program as a goodwill ambassador. When we carry on with such a methodology, our narratives of modernism can become more creative and associative, more purpose-built to the needs of the moment, more attuned to local details than to grand designs, more like Virginia Woolf’s narrative of Mrs. Dalloway than Marx’s or Hegel’s narrative of historical and art-historical destiny.

Here we are not supposed to contextualize texts in the standard ways, the familiar ways, because—well—we can’t presuppose that the context we have just sketched out is already fixed in its reference points and historically well understood. As Rita Felski puts it, the “busy afterlife of the literary artifact refutes our efforts to box it into a moment of origin.”[7] Texts have emergent properties that are activated when they enter new contexts. This resistance to explaining texts by placing them against their clarifying context is perhaps the most impudent aspect of “weak theorizing” because it challenges conventional historicist impulses. Felski takes up the network theories of Bruno Latour. So does Amy Hungerford, who notes “that the field of sociology mistakenly assumes—as do most of us in common parlance—that something called ‘the social’ always exists. . . .  Latour argued instead that social connections only deserve the name when they are acted upon, . . . that the social only exists at all when its networks are activated, and what’s more, that social actors come in both human and nonhuman forms.”[8]

Saint-Amour imagines how the field would be strengthened by using these emergent properties of the network, in effect, to scramble and redefine modernism, bearing witness to the “tangential processes, wayward lines of association” that Dimock hails (“Weak Theory,” 736). He observes that “modernist studies . . . has flourished in proportion as the term modernism has softened its definitional gaze and relinquished its gatekeeping function—in proportion, again, as we have learned to focus on questions other than, ‘But is such-and-such a work really modernist?’” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 451). One seeming posture of weak theorizing is simply to redescribe what the field is already doing (i.e., weakening its central term modernism) or to continue to do what a relentless number of MSA panels do year after year (i.e., following a network of writers across a now-expanding field), but this time without claiming to make any major normative claims. As Saint-Amour says, “my aims . . . are finally descriptive rather than laudatory, hortatory, or polemical” (451). Instead of starting “vertically” from stipulated definitions, weak theorizers can canvass other critics, such as Jessica Berman and Mark Wollaeger, who propose a decentered, laterally associative configuration for modernism. They simply add their voice to the mix, amplify ideas of modernism as a network, double down on a description of what is happening now, while conveniently—or is it ruefully?—abandoning the social, political, and heuristic rationales that lay out why expansionism was sold as a value to the field in the first place. Because at this moment of exhaustion, they are only “weakly” wedded to the methodology, they can also be weakly wedded to their old habits of mind, trickling down from the good old days when they could imagine their work as well as their objects of study in a more heroic, oppositional orientation to capitalism. But now they are disburdened of the need to assess the efficacy of that orientation or the accuracy of the description. We live in a world of weak actants, after all. Weak effects are everywhere.

Is weak theory, I wonder, already generating a fearsome buzz among modernist studies scholars because the psychic commitments it claims can be so diffuse, because the meekness of the methodology encourages small variations to the status quo, and because it seems to be a paradigmatic example of “have your cake and eat it too”? I put the point as a question because, like Saint-Amour, I am not convinced that we know where weak theory is going, or how its effects will play out. To the degree that it has brought to the fore questions about the limitations of critique that takes the form of unmasking or demystification of literary and theoretical texts (which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick aligns with a strong affect theory, paranoia), it is already a much-needed corrective. As ever, the question of methodology and psychic orientation have to be framed in pragmatic (and pragmatist) terms: what is weak theory doing for modernist studies now?

Affect’s Relationship to Theory

Saint-Amour is seemingly aware of some of the elements of the critical assessment I just laid out because he anticipates it, preemptively framing it, readying us all for the anticipated backlash to come:

It may be that practicing weak theorists who avoid the handle have intuited something like weak theory’s double-bind: that to avow oneself a weak theorist in a dynamotropic profession is to invite attack for being unrigorous, quietist, anti-theory, anti-intellectual; that the negative affect consequent on that attack would cause one’s theory of weakness to grow stronger in response . . . ; that the only way to keep one’s theory weak and effective is to practice it with a furtiveness that looks an awful lot like paranoia. (445)

And yet, of course, Saint-Amour has done anything but act furtively. He has produced a special issue. Modernism/modernity has created this forum for debate about the topic, the intensity and sheer volume of which I can hardly recall elsewhere. I don’t mean to be disparaging. The debate is a stellar achievement, and Saint-Amour has done a superb job of bringing concerns to the table. In fact, to my chagrin, it has been hard to avoid the decryptive mode even in my analysis here when, in some respects, I would rather be just another admirer of the work produced under the moniker. However, something about the all-encompassing nature of the category makes me uncomfortable. Like all successful theorists, Saint-Amour welcomes a good binary, which organizes the field of debate. But does everything have to fit into a strong theory/weak theory dualism? Are there only two camps to map the critical field, with weak theory in the ascendancy? Do we know the difference between strong affect theories and weak affect theories in advance of seeing how they play out in a discursive and performative field? And most fundamentally, do we not want to retain theory as an intellectual force that can step in to rearticulate the terms of the debate, rather than reinscribe a binary over and over again?

What I’m driving at, in part, is that we have to avoid seeming descriptions of the field “as it is” that are in fact prescriptions of a particularly totalizing sort. As Aaron Jaffe and Michael F. Miller have already pointed out—riffing off of Boris Groys as well as other media theorists—any effort to describe modernism or modernist literary studies as a network is not affectively or epistemically neutral, “but a prescriptive and regulative format of hidden phenomenologies.” If that is so, I worry about producing or reproducing a strong affect theory to organize our encounters with weak theory. Such an affect theory would involve strong commitment to weak theorizing and strong commitment to the label in particular. We need to work at registering the affects called up by our theoretical endeavors. If we find ourselves manically stepping into all of the positions and affective permutations that might possibly be adopted toward a theoretical handle to ward off disagreement or disapproval, why are we doing this? If something that “looks an awful lot like paranoia” is coming up, what is driving it?

At this juncture, it may be worth clarifying the relationship between weak affect and weak theory. The idea that theories have affective valences and, hence, effects that cannot be characterized simply as correct or incorrect, is basic to Sedgwick’s enactment of Tomkins’s ideas. Sedgwick puts the issue in the following terms: “What characterizes strong theory in Tomkins is not, after all, how well it avoids negative affects or finds positive affects, but the size and topology of the domain it organizes.”[9] We could ask: is irritation always a weak affect? The answer might be not necessarily. And how might irritation promulgate a theory? We can understand any affect theory by analogy to a humiliation theory, which is strong, says Tomkins, “to the extent to which more and more experiences to be accounted for as instances of humiliation, or to the extent to which it enables more and more anticipation of such contingencies before they actually happen” (Affect, 2: 433–34). I would suggest that a weak affect theory, such as irritation, can be weakly generative to the extent that one can bump into its feeling structures from time to time without letting it override generosity, curiosity, shrugging acquiescence, hold-your-breath suspension and any number of other responses.

Causal Explanations, Dynamic Changes, Systems Theory

The promulgators of weak theory do not think that they are embracing the modernist field as it is presently constituted because the mode of theorizing at issue has a dynamic capacity to change how we encounter the texts and discourses we study. In other words, weak theory is not simply historicism by other means. Even though it claims to do little more than inventory or describe the discourses it is attempting to theorize, it neither limits itself to one historical moment nor remains wedded to the prevailing structures of power that define a field of discourse. Dimock resorts to the metaphor of “infection” to describe this dynamic capacity. She notes that “textual infections tend to be opportunistic”—the way, for example, Tóibín’s biofictional rendition of Henry James in The Master changes how we appreciate James’s language, spreads “across the entire James corpus,” proliferating into a variety of different strands—James’s Irish background, his class politics, his forays into theater, as well as his sexuality—till “what emerges now is an entire signifying field, retroactively broadened and newly infectious, spreading from Tóibín to James, making hitherto unmarked phenomena now suddenly marked” (“Weak Theory,” 740, 741). But instead of resting with this “retroactive symptomization,” she offers communicable disease as an analogy for vectors that move bidirectionally, influencing how we perceive Tóibín, as well as laterally to new hosts, such as Yeats (744). These disease vectors may be weak, but the forces they unleash do not stay still. Can weak theory infect modernist studies in this way?

Here is the problem: not all communicable diseases “take” and allow the body (here including the corporate body of scholars) to succumb to infection. Sometimes the body stays as it was, even if it was inoculated with the bug or virus. Dynamic systems theory has long understood this facet of actual disease progression—for example, in the case of cholera. We normally think of bacteria and viruses as the “cause” of disease, but in fact, when they are introduced into host species, a large number of organisms will not get sick. Many healthy people naturally harbor pathogens. How do scientists explain this fact? The medical model looks for a unitary cause, a vector that moves from microorganism to disease. Scientists devise controlled experiments to isolate the pernicious pathogen. Humans like a good causal story because it helps them imagine how they can intervene technically into an order of events. As neuroscientist Walter J. Freedman observes, “The latest example is the recognition that pyloric ulcers are caused by a bacillus and not by psychic stress or a deleterious lifestyle, implying that the cause is ‘real’ and not just ‘psychosomatic.’”[10] However, systems theory tells us that diseases, just like intentional decisions (volitions), do not unfold as punctual or linear events. Freedman maintains that they are better conceived as global properties of a system, with distributed interactions that create various constraints on change within a field of action. Those changes correspond to so-called phase shifts, such as the muscular-skeletal system’s transition from walking to running. Parts interact with each other according to stages or levels of circular causality, including recursive interactions across levels and between brain, body, and world. Sometimes, systems (including systems of scholarly discourse and research) are more stable than anticipated, or their modes of change are limited to cycles of displacement and recovery, and stability should be measured against the criteria for what is chosen to be observed.

I make this little foray into systems theory because, I would argue, we need to do more than additively expand the total number of causal arrows that we think explain the changes in a system. We need new theories to help us ask the right sorts of questions when we seek to understand how complex interactions happen. When Benjamin Kahan surveys the “weak theories” that circulated in turn-of-the-century sexology to explain volitional etiologies, such as sexuality, he proposes to “chart a historical, scientific, and political debate” as to whether sexuality and sexual preference are congenital or acquired.[11] He acknowledges longstanding theoretical opposition to asking the question because of theorists’ fears regarding the homophobic motivations that have historically structured the debate. Nevertheless he persists because the taxonomic urge of science plays “an important role in the construction of individual’s sexual lives and self-conceptions” (Kahan, “Volitional Etiologies,” 552). As well, he hypothesizes that it is possible to “forge a weak theory of etiology” in which causative forces and etiological explanations are “plural or provisional,” and the theories concerned can be recognized without being “wholly determinative on the one hand, or having no impact on the other” (553, 552). He proceeds to examine the “weak” role that alcohol plays in homosexual behavior at the “boundary of self-control” and uses a number of test cases, including F. O. Matthiessen’s self-punishing letters that lament his “indulgences” and a truly hilarious reading of the 1944 film The Lost Weekend, which explores the causes for the protagonist Don’s weekend bender and implied sexual predilections (554). If Kahan’s intriguing investigation were limited to a historical survey of the extant lines of explanation within a powerful scientific discourse, then his work, broadly speaking, would employ weak theory for conventional historicist aims. But if he actually thinks that such weak theorizing could go some way to explaining sexuality, then we have to interrogate the form that his question takes, which asks whether sexuality is biologically inherited or acquired? Does this conventional structure offer an adequate way of framing etiological inquiry?

From the point of view of dynamic systems theory, no trait, characteristic, or behavior of any kind can be classified as inherited or acquired, strictly speaking. As Susan Oyama puts it, “Nature is not transmitted but constructed. An organism’s nature—the characteristics that define it at a given time—is not genotypic (a genetic program or plan causing development) but phenotypic (a product of development).”[12] It is a form of dualism or genetic imperialism to attribute “some parts of the phenotype to the gene and some to the environment”; an organism’s development is “simply not partitionable in this way” (Oyama, Evolution’s Eye, 52). I do not have the space here to propose an alternative and more justified framework for raising questions about the origin or basis of sexuality. My point is that we cannot take the way sexology approaches the question as an adequate articulation of the problematic, regardless of whether the theories are “weak” or “strong.” We desperately need new, better models of biosocial entanglement. Historically, one of the obstacles to generating these models is the modern discipline of psychiatry itself, which, from Sigmund Freud’s time to our own, insists on producing polarizing distinctions between “functional” (psychosomatic) and “organic” (congenital, biological) diseases, making questionable assumptions about levels of causation that are relatively autonomous from one another.

Unraveling these historical problems and the limitations of reductivist methodologies are some of the many things that humanities scholars can help to accomplish, working in collaboration with other biomedical theorists. But to do this we need to allow ourselves the freedom to do new things with texts and archives rather than simply to ask what is modernism once again.


Lisa Mendelman: Strong Character, Weak Theory

Character, it seems, is what we talk about when we talk about modernism and weakness. Or perhaps I should say, characters are what we talk about—character as an index of individual personality and reputation, character as a measure of moral quality, character as the spirit of an age, character as a symbolic form in a work of fiction or an historical narrative. Paul K. Saint-Amour’s opening salvo dramatizes this polysemous anthropomorphism. First, the ironic self-aggrandizement: “Modernism . . . is strong people demonstrating strength.”[1] Then, the sincere self-consciousness: the previous account “verges on cartoon vitalism” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 437). This ebb and flow—the performance of “warrior masculinity,” undercut by ostensibly self-deflating self-reflexivity—is, I suggest, part and parcel of modernist character, both then and now. By “then,” I mean any time between, say, December 1910 and yesterday. By “now,” I mean at the edge of the contemporary—the temporal index that Aaron Jaffe and Michael F. Miller identify as a related term for our value-laden timestamp of choice. Told one way, the story of modernist character involves the supplanting of strong personality by weak affect, the replacement of coherent sensibility with messy intensities, and the coercive comforts of collective ethos undone by ever more local consciousness. I propose that this story is as old as modernism and no less new for it.

Modernist Charisma: Or, Am I Weak Enough to Be Your Theorist?

Literary character is having a moment. This object of renewed critical interest informs recent monographs by modernist scholars including Jed Esty, Marta Figlerowitz, and Omri Moses, each of which think about early-twentieth-century fictional models of personhood and participate in broader conversations about this key element of narrative literature.[2] My contribution to this subfield takes up icons of modern femininity (the New Woman, the flapper, the free lover, the New Negro woman, the divorcée) and argues that these figures embody aspects of a traditional sentimentality while also recognizing sentiment as incompatible with ideals of modern selfhood. These double binds beleaguer the protagonists and shape the styles of US women novelists like Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Anita Loos, and Jessie Fauset. “Modern sentimentalism” thus translates nineteenth-century conventions of sincerity and emotional fulfillment into the skeptical, self-conscious modes of interwar cultural production.

I will say more about the modern sentimentalist at the end of this piece. First, however, I want to sketch another figure who populates this cluster, the weak-theorizing modernist literary critic. Examining this constellation offers one way to approach the concerns of positionality and embodiment that Yan Tang, Holly Laird, Elizabeth Sheehan, Susan Stanford Friedman, Cyraina Johnson-Rouiller, Cliff Mak, and Pamela Thurschwell variously argue “should complement the field’s investigations of affect, including the affects of criticism.”[3] Character studies address these corporeal concerns. Such investigations flesh out our understandings of literary, cultural, and critical history, putting skin on the bones of subjects often approached in more abstract terms. The imbrications of social identity, corporeality, and the history of emotion, for example, or the entanglements of gendered authorship, aesthetic categories, and literary critical history. As I suggest below, a characterological approach can also help address several recent criticisms of affect theory as being, ironically, too strong.

The portrait of the contemporary critic that appears in the previous essays is rife with self-conscious conflict and existential misgivings. Saint-Amour inaugurates this “frank anxiety” (as Katherine Fusco calls it) in an introduction that identifies this “state of self-scrutiny” and “crisis of self-recognition” as “one of the most valuable services such an issue can tender its field of study” (“Weak Theory,” 442). Accordingly, Saint-Amour shares his “own ambivalences about weak theory,” which include the “drift toward doctrine, coherentism, triumphalism, and sovereign self-understanding” (454, 455). These concerns are characterological as well as epistemological—an attempt “to ward off . . . humiliation” as much as to be intellectually generative or argumentatively right (444). As Saint-Amour details, the weak theorist is downright paranoid about being weak enough.[4] (Here I should note that I distinguish the character of the weak theorist from the essayists whose brilliant thinking about living and working in relation to this model is everywhere on display; as with all collective abstractions, embodied individuals vitally outlive the frame.)

Literary criticism is shaped by reciprocal affective currents, as Grace Lavery’s engaging case study of Matthew Arnold elucidates.[5] The weak theorist who appears in this cluster equally worries over reducing its antagonist, “the critic as heroic demystifier,” “master decoder and defender of culture,” to convenient “caricature” and “straw-man” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 439, 456, 444, 441). This mutually formative anxiety reflects a self-conscious example of what Yan Tang identifies as a “wicked problem”: any individual, human-sized effort to be logically and morally right can be found to be “logically and morally wrong on the scale of the whole problem.” The weak theorist recognizes this double bind and tries to fail better. Or, as Wai Chee Dimock puts it, the weak theorist hopes that its “[f]alling short is less a sin than a spur to the work of others.”[6] As such moralizing rhetoric indicates, the weak theorist has hardly given up the ghosts of illuminating saints and obfuscating sinners.[7]

Ambivalence, anxiety, uncertainty. Fragmentation, defamiliarization, self-estrangement. It is tempting to identify some of the weak theorist’s tendencies as typically modernist. Yet these hallmarks of modernist sensibility play out differently for different subjects, both then and now. Take ambivalence, for example. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, when this term first appeared in 1910, it referred to a psychotic symptom of schizophrenia.[8] Migrating into popular psychology, the condition soon became a neurosis associated with young women and homosexuals. By the late 1920s, “ambivalence” also described an aesthetic value associated with masculine intelligence. The weak theorist’s ambivalence traffics in this later mode of esteemed discernment, even as it draws on the affective and volitional implications of the pathologized disorder. Saint-Amour’s performative disclosures accrue “the value of being up-to-date” (Jaffe and Miller), not least because this “nearly-confessional” (Fusco) mode assumes already-existing analytical efficacy rather than doubles down on corporeal shortcoming.

The issue, then, is not just which weaknesses count as strengths or virtues, but for whom those weaknesses register as strengths and virtues—and when and where and how that valuation occurs. Sara Crangle recuperates Anna Mendelssohn’s agonies of ambivalence, but Mendelssohn’s lived experience underscores the difference that embodied subjectivity makes. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde do something similar for Virginia Woolf’s and Kate Zambreno’s “generic and stylistic multiplicity” and “unapologetically emotional voices,” but as Friedman points out, Micir and Vadde are not the amateur critics they would enfranchise.[9] David Sherman observes something similar in Chaplin’s role-reversals, which pivot on the fact that “strength and weakness are produced and allocated by the rules of the game.” In the game of modernist charisma, strength and weakness are predetermined by subject-object position: the weak theorist must be weak enough to disable hostility but strong enough to command respect.

Strong Feelings, Weak Arguments

Affect scholarship enjoys a relatively privileged status in this cluster, for all the anxiety of influence on display. There are, however, three criticisms of this field that appear in latent or oblique forms. One is that affect’s cultural theorists often reinforce a Cartesian dualism they ostensibly reject, separating sensing from experience (defining affect as “unqualified intensity,” distinct from emotion’s “subjective content”), and rely on tenuous psychobiological claims to do so.[10] A second criticism is that efforts to avoid this pitfall reverse these subtle priorities and advance a cognitivism that is no less invested in problematic science.[11] A third concern is that considering affect as a presociolinguistic form reduces its politics to a good-bad, liberating-coercive binary and precludes more nuanced interrogations of how it plays out in individual lives and social bodies.[12]

Versions of these criticisms appear in the essays to date. Lavery observes that affect tends to be thought in “profoundly dualistic” terms of soma not psyche (“There is mind, and here is matter”) (“On Being Criticized,” 501). Laird describes the cognitivist bent of the cluster’s essays and their lack of attention to “‘abstraction’ and . . . Cartesian binaries,” even as “body-language” enables their “argument[s] to be made.” David Ayers highlights “the unacknowledged universalism” that pervades weak theory. Sheehan likewise worries over the ways in which weak theory in modernist studies might “override rather than dovetail with feminist, queer, and disability studies approaches to weakness,” by privileging “expansion and vagueness” over more specific phenomenological accounts.

A recent model of thinking affect seeks to address these criticisms. Psychologists John Cromby and Martin E. H. Willis argue for attending to feeling as a process that integrates affect. “Feeling,” they argue, “is the primordial texture of being,” which includes immediate sensation and visceral impulse, as well as a wealth of other non-symbolic data that remains “unobserved” and “unrecorded” by the mind (“Affect—or Feeling,” 485). This same texture of being crucially “mesh[es] with other sources of meaning (discourses, symbols, images, films, memories) to co-constitute present moments of experience” and likewise co-constitutes all mentalized phenomena, from intuition and intention to reason and intellect (491). Above all, Cromby and Willis assert, “the feeling body is always in the world” (493). This claim, and Cromby and Willis’s conceptual approach to it, echoes other recent cross-disciplinary efforts to think more dynamically about the relays between thought / cognition / mentality and feeling / emotion / corporeality—what’s been called “embodied subjectivity,” “the minded-body,” or “bodymind” depending on scholarly emphasis.[13]

I argue that a characterological approach to evaluating literary affect dovetails with these ongoing endeavors. Such an approach extends two well-known theories of affective aesthetics. First, Eve Sedgwick’s texture, which “comprises an array of perceptual data that includes repetition, but whose degree of organization hovers just below the level of shape or structure.”[14] And second, Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling,” which “is as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible part of our activities.”[15] Thinking with character draws out these concepts’ shared structural quality. Cultural icons and fictional protagonists are constructed models that can be read for their organizations of human feeling. Reading these representative abstractions in terms of affect helps illuminate what visceral qualities these social symbols privilege, and what corporeal matters they exclude. Thinking affect in terms of these imaginary individuals also offers additional information about how affect’s lived processes run through its human subjects.

Sentimentalists Weak and Strong

By way of example, I’ll sketch another person-sized form of weakness and strength who shows up in the special issue and its responses, the modernist-era sentimentalist.[16] First, Matthew Arnold ventriloquizes the Times’s characterization of him as “a sentimentalist who talks nonsense” and whose “dainty taste” reflects a lack of “strong sense and sturdy morality” (Lavery, “On Being Criticized,” 508). Then, Dimock identifies Raymond Williams’s structure of feeling as “inarticulate sentiment,” which (per Williams, quoted in Dimock) is a “‘practical consciousness of a present kind’” (“Weak Network,” 590). Next, Fusco describes a “weak affiliation of sentiments” that binds a contemporary collective of “scholars, teachers, and world citizens” to weak theory. Finally, Julian Murphet narrates the “guttering out” of Soviet cinema into “nostalgia” and other “hitherto impermissible sentiments and affects,” narrating this trajectory in familiar terms of modernist “hardness” as a “rejection of emotional softness” and a Poundian exorcism of “emotional slither”—a near synonym, in Pound’s “The Serious Artist” (1913), of “sentimentalizing.”[17]

Pound was right on at least one count: sentiment is a slippery characterological force. In the uses above, the term slips from effete whole-bodied character trait to attenuated, reflective feeling to denigrated cultural aesthetic. Sentiment appears strong—positively-valued—when it is weakly embodied, and weak—negatively-valued—when it is strongly embodied. Except when it doesn’t. Arnold’s ironic performance of his supposedly incoherent emotionality demonstrates the reversibility of these positions, flipping the roles à la Sherman’s Chaplin. Williams’s positively-valued affective incoherence likewise suggests an irreducible physicality, only made smart by refraction through critical consciousness. As I’ve suggested, this ebb and flow is consistent with the wending ways of early-twentieth-century sentimental character.

By “sentimental character” here I mean a sensibility animated by the conviction that feelings matter—that emotional intuition and corporeal sensation are primary sources of knowledge, meaning, and interpersonal connection. But what this slither means and how such data matters is up for grabs. The character I call the modern sentimentalist is ironic and ambivalent about this mess of being and the cultural conventions and social expectations that come with it. This is to say: the modern sentimentalist is ironic and ambivalent about feeling too much or too little, by yesterday’s strong standards or today’s weak ones. The modern sentimentalist is also ambivalent about this ambivalence, since this suspension also reflects a kind of failure (the goal being some not-anxious form of psychic moderation—to feel just right, if you will). Above all then, the modern sentimentalist is ironic and ambivalent about its own enduring sentimentality.

For the modern women I study, such affective relays estrange them from both earlier and emergent definitions of femininity, even as we might also recognize their fragmented, alienated self-consciousness as typically modern. These mixed feelings, I argue, variously define the flapper and the New Negro woman, Carrie Bradshaw and Hannah Gadsby, and the contemporary weak theorist in turn. (See, for example, Madelyn Detloff’s and Mak’s eloquent thinking about loving toxic objects, and Thurschwell’s repair better marriage of Benjamin and Klein.) The durability of such self-critical sentiment, I propose, is less about character and more about personhood—not a question of virtue, reputation, or the spirit of an age, but a function of how strong and weak feeling, both normative and descriptive, equally shape the lives we imagine and those we live out.


Lisi Schoenbach: Modernism Has Always Been Weak

The conversation around weak theory raises questions about our theoretical stances and possibilities, about character and mood, about solidarity and the constitution of our field. It raises important and increasingly urgent questions as well about our ethical and political commitments. What’s at stake in so many of these pieces, beginning with Paul Saint-Amour’s wonderful introduction to the “Weak Theory” issue, is the question of how best to embody those commitments through our scholarly work, our institutional allegiances, the theoretical frameworks we embrace. This question, according to the essays in this series, also presents a problem: how do we embrace vulnerability and weakness, and express solidarity with marginalized and provisional identities, theories, and expressions, without somehow sacrificing that underlying sense of political consciousness and urgency our moment appears to demand? On what, if not a strong theory, can our political and ethical commitments rest?

The crises and demands that define public life and our profession in this moment certainly appear to demand a strong response. For some, it seems that such a response can only come in the form of a strong theory, one that offers a “totalizing” view. For others, such as Susan Stanford Friedman, a strong response may itself require a more provisional approach, modest in theoretical orientation if not in moral commitment:

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.

Friedman is hardly alone in this discussion in quietly drawing on the vocabulary, key concepts, and even the staunchly matter-of-fact tone of pragmatist philosophy. As Holly Laird observes in her own response, “‘Pragmatism’ has stayed so ‘weak’. . . 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.” I want to develop Laird’s observation, and follow Kate Stanley in bringing pragmatism explicitly to the center of the conversation, not only because it anticipates influential articulations of “weak” theory offered by Saint-Amour and Wai Chee Dimock (not to mention those by Gianni Vattimo, Bruno Latour, phenomenology, and cultural studies, among other movements and thinkers) but because pragmatism as a mode of thought is itself also a legacy of modernism.

Pragmatism, along with the various debates surrounding its emergence as a philosophical perspective, also offers a number of helpful models for thinking through the problems described above. I’ll focus in particular on pragmatism’s conception of itself as an “open” rather than a “closed” intellectual system, to use Madelyn Detloff’s terms. “Weak” though many people have found it, pragmatism was never a theory in the traditional sense of the term—a unified explanatory framework—but was rather conceived as a methodology meant to guide an ongoing and open-ended project of inquiry. This commitment to contingency and refusal of teleology sets it against (and has long been the basis for its disagreements with) Marxism, the “closed,” totalizing intellectual system that has also gone largely unmentioned in this discussion, though its figure has been repeatedly invoked through references to Jamesonian “totality.” The Marxism and pragmatism debates, which divided the intellectual left in the 1920s and 1930s, in many ways anticipate the problem of “weak v. strong” articulated by this series and refocus our attention on some of the most durable philosophical and political assumptions that have shaped our field.

Trotsky and Dewey

In 1937, the seventy-eight-year-old John Dewey made a difficult journey by train from Chicago to Mexico City, where he served for eight days as the chairman of hearings on behalf of “The Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials.” Widely known now as “The Dewey Commission,” this international tribunal was assembled in order to debunk Trotksy’s conviction in absentia for “industrial sabotage,” planning terrorist attacks against Soviet leaders, and plotting with Germany and Japan. These were false charges, supported by manufactured evidence and culminating in a show trial staged by Stalin’s government. Dewey risked his own personal safety to travel to Mexico and chair the commission in order to set the record straight. The house in which Trotsky was staying and in which the trial took place—owned by Diego Rivera, in Coyoacán—was surrounded by guards to protect its inmates from political assassins, and members of the commission were themselves given guns and put on watch duty over the course of the trial. Further, after his commission found Trotsky innocent of the changes manufactured by Stalin, Dewey faced the ire of his fellow leftists. Dubbed a fascist and a tool of the Trotskyists, Dewey clashed with many old friends, and resigned his twenty-five-year position on the editorial board of The New Republic over the journal’s continued refusal to condemn Stalin’s purges and other atrocities.

Dewey made these sacrifices on behalf of a man for whom he had immense respect but with whom he fundamentally disagreed. During the trial, and in one additional exchange published in The New International in 1938, and later as the book Their Morals and Ours (1979), Dewey and Trotsky argued passionately for their respective political and philosophical orientations. Although both men shared a strong desire to see a fairer, more just, and more equitable society, and although neither had a particular fondness for the exploitations and corruptions of American capitalism, their philosophical outlooks were utterly incompatible.[1] According to R. Scott Frey and Jonathan Moreno, “To Dewey, the hermetic quality of Trotksy’s theoretical framework underlay its absolutism. Twelve years after the hearings [James T.] Farrell . . . notes Dewey’s lasting impression of Trotsky: ‘He was tragic. To see such brilliant native intelligence locked up in absolutes.’”[2]

Dewey’s critique of Marxism is based in the notion that it was a closed or “hermetic” philosophical system—a “strong” theory. This basic disagreement was accompanied by a variety of more specific disagreements: Dewey rejected historical inevitability, the notion that history itself is a closed system, and instead embraced radical historical contingency; he also categorically rejected violence, metaphysics, and utopianism. But the primary disagreement between Dewey and Trotsky centered on the Marxist understanding of means and ends.

Dewey insisted on the ongoing and dynamic relationship (what he called the “interdependence”) of means and ends. He refused the notion that it is necessary or even desirable to have a static and unchanging end in mind when faced with the multitude of smaller scale decisions that make up a struggle, whether it be an individual struggle for happiness or the global struggle for social justice. Ends, according to Dewey, require ongoing adjustments. Means must be beautiful—aesthetically and morally—and defensible on their own merits, every step of the way. For Dewey the horrors of Stalinism could be traced directly back to Marxists’ willingness to rely upon deductive reasoning when it comes to moral decision-making, and thus to suspend the process of moral judgment in the name of a universal law. In “Means and Ends,” his response to Trotsky’s “Their Morals and Ours,” he makes this perfectly clear: “The belief that a law of history determines the particular way in which the struggle is to be carried on certainly seems to tend toward a fanatical and even mystical devotion to use of certain ways of conducting the class struggle to the exclusion of all other ways of conducting it.”[3]

In “Democracy is Radical” (1937), he develops this idea more fully:

For democracy means not only the ends which now even dictatorships assert are their ends, security for individuals and opportunity for their development as personalities. It signifies also primary emphasis upon the means by which these ends are to be fulfilled. The means to which it is devoted are the voluntary activities of individuals in opposition to coercion; they are assent and consent in opposition to violence; they are the force of intelligent organization versus that of organization imposed from outside and above. The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by means that accord with those ends.[4]

Dewey’s rejection of “strong” theory in this case does not merely mark a difference of tone or style (though such differences are undoubtedly important.) It marks a substantive philosophical disagreement founded on pragmatism’s rejection of metaphysics, received truths, and static, unchanging categories of analysis. It argues in the strongest moral terms that what we have been calling “weak” theory—provisionality, contingency, openness, a rejection of received categories and foregone conclusions, requires tremendous strength. The failures of Marxism in Dewey’s critique are explicitly presented as failures of moral and intellectual strenuousness; a tendency to fall back upon preconceived ideas and to cut corners by elevating ends over means. Living without strong theories places greater and not lesser demands upon us. This is exemplified by Dewey’s decision to chair the commission on Trotsky in the first place, a choice that rested on no principle more transcendent or “strong” than Dewey’s own commitment to stand up for justice and fairness, because, in his own words, “to act otherwise would be to be false to my life work.”[5]

Movements and Campaigns

In Achieving Our Country (1999), Richard Rorty offers a pragmatist criticism of Marxism that has much in common with Dewey’s. Like Dewey’s, Rorty’s is primarily philosophical in nature, based on an objection to the notion of historical inevitability. Rorty takes issue, for instance, with the left’s “insouciant use of terms like “late capitalism” which “sugges[t] that we can just wait for capitalism to collapse, rather than figuring out what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate distribution.”[6]  He concedes that it is no small feat to sacrifice the notion that we are on a path somewhere, to substitute what he calls “campaigns”—strategic, limited, initiatives with clear goals—for “movements,” big, amorphous, inspiring collectivities driven by the belief that “things will be changed utterly” (Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 115).

“Movements and Campaigns,” the third chapter of Achieving Our Country, is also, as it happens, an essay about modernism. It is in the context of modernism’s legacy, and the legacy of critics such as Irving Howe, who managed to connect revolutionary artworks to expansive visions of social justice, that Rorty asks us to imagine a world without “such assurances.”[7] “What might the cultural history and sociopolitical history of the West,” he asks, “look like if we tried to narrate both without mention of major turnings? What would they look like if they were written as the histories of a very large number of small campaigns, rather than as the history of a few great movements?” (121). Though Rorty’s questions are not directed exclusively at the ideology of modernism, it is nevertheless possible to understand the “weak ties” of the new modernist studies as one possible answer to his second question, a provisional and open-ended attempt to narrate modernism “as a very large number of small campaigns, rather than . . . the history of a few great movements.”

If we were ever able to let go of the notion that history has a clear and interpretable direction, Rorty suggests, “[b]oth political and cultural history would be seen as a tissue of chances, mischances, and lost chances—a tissue from which, occasionally and briefly, beauty flashes forth, but to which sublimity is entirely irrelevant” (123). To understand history as a series of “chances, mischances, and lost chances” is not only to see past events as contingent or accidental. It requires as well that we revisit history with an eye toward awakening its lost possibilities, and that we understand it not as a settled account but as a story whose meanings continue to change with each future event and insight.

Strong Theories and Strong Thinkers

In his introduction, Saint-Amour poses a gentle but crucial question about what it means to operate in the absence of “strong” theory: “I wonder,” he asks, “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.”[8] My answer is a resounding “yes!” followed closely by a second, equally resounding “yes!”

It’s not only true, as Saint-Amour suggests, that “a field’s strength (in the normative sense)—its vitality, generativity, and populousness—may increase as the imminent theory of its central term weakens (in the descriptive sense)” (“Weak Theory,” 451). A weaker theory can give rise to a stronger field, but only if its practitioners commit to becoming stronger (more tireless, more vigilant) in order to make it so. This strength, conceived by Saint-Amour as a commitment to “cultivating . . . vigilance,” also involves struggling on in the absence of teleological narratives or metaphysical commitments (453). It means defending an ethics no less urgent because it comes without a “strong” theory to ground it. Fortunately for us, there is a rich field of models of such defenses to be found in the modernist moment, and of thinkers whose work weakened the hold of philosophical assumptions and predetermined categories, demanding all the more strength and imagination of themselves as they faced the unknown future.

Pragmatism continues to provide a valuable and important model for “weak theory” precisely because it makes such an exhaustive case for ethics and politics operating in the absence of a strong theory. It urges us to shed our metaphysical carapaces and bloom into the vulnerability and fluttering beauty of contingency. The ethics of modernist studies as a field can be whatever we make them, and we must attend to them just as intensively and rigorously as we attend to any scholarly inquiry. This is already a politics, and needs no further centering or totalizing vision to be made more “real.”


Margaret Konkol: Weakly Ecological

The September 2018 issue of Modernism/modernity, as well as the lively responses it has inspired, demonstrate a healthy ecology of proposition, opposition, and apposition within modernist studies. So tallied, weak theory has strengthened the field. As the contributions to this issue demonstrate, the field has grown beyond querying whether a given work is or is not modernist. In fact, different methodologies make artifacts differently available for study. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde take up center-periphery with Virginia Woolf and Kate Zambreno; Sara Crangle recovers Anna Mendelssohn; Grace Lavery and Benjamin Kahan explore “narrative profusion” when textual hierarchies are permitted to slacken, with Lavery examining the feint and parry within Matthew Arnold’s criticism and Kahan discussing sexual etiology; Wai Chee Dimock charts Faulkner through hybridity and flow; and Gabriel Hankins explores “relational networks of association.”[1] Evidently, the strong theory paradigm does not fit modernism understood as a “dynamic set of relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements.”[2] Reflecting on this deft assessment of modernism by Jessica Berman, Paul Saint-Amour observes that modernism is not identifiable by a “master criterion” so much as it is a “lattice of nodes and traits, detectable as site-specific subjects” (“Weak Theory,” 452).

Ebb and Flow

New sociologies of literature, the ebb of strong theory, and the infusion of interdisciplinary digital humanities, as Saint Amour eloquently writes, have given the field “vitality, generativity, and populousness.”[3] In addition to a description of the field, this could just as well be an ecologist’s assessment of an intertidal zone. The futurity and biological optimism conveyed by these descriptors is undeniably appealing. To sport a little more within the environmental imagination, consider the fences and fabrications that have delimited modernism as a historical formation once checked to a “small, Eurocentric, predominantly white male canon” (“Weak Theory,” 454). Once rigid demarcations now have been denatured through geographical and chronological extension that is in large part a consequence of a full-scale reckoning with British and American modernism’s complicity with empire. Indicative of the transnational, global, and planetary turn hailed by Susan Stanford Friedman, Douglas Mao, and Rebecca Walkowitz, recent MSA conferences have featured roundtables on feminist directions, digital humanities, race, pedagogy, and transnational and global modernism. This is cause for optimism, indeed.

Guiding these new priorities is a more flexible non-Eurocentric and nonhierarchical reorientation, far less dependent on a fixed definitional target. In fact, teleological interpretation, motivated by transcendental truth-claims, has been on the wane for at least a decade. And, the shift away from grand narratives makes perfect sense given that strong theory developed in a historical epoch that by and large accepted a neat division between nature and culture. As a consequence, strong theory approaches rested on a variety of assumptions about the human place in nature. But to live in the Anthropocene as a structure of consciousness is to recognize that there is no place where culture stops and nature begins, or where nature stops and culture begins.

Recently, in the pages of Modernism/modernity Benjamin Bagocius, Chris Danta, and Michelle Niemann have taken up aspects of the ecological.[4] Yet, with the exception of a roundtable at Pittsburgh in 2014 on “Modernism and the Anthropocene,” MSA conferences have not featured roundtables, plenaries, or keynotes on modernism and the environment or modernism and climate change. For that matter, there as yet has been no concerted focus at MSA on environment as object of modernist attention or modernism recast through ecological analysis. Nor has there been a M/m Print Plus cluster published (or for that matter, proposed) on ecology in modernism.  As Timothy Wientzen has similarly noted, none of the essays included in this special issue address environment as weak object or environment as a weak methodological approach. One of the most suggestive moments in this issue’s introduction occurs in the field-expanding remarks about the prospects of ecologically-directed work. Yet work in modernist studies that embraces the weakness of “beings, objects, [and] environments” is mostly in absentia within the issue itself (456).  What accounts for this inattention? The answer lies in the historical momentum of strong theory.

Thinking environmentally is the weakest of weak theory. After all, modernists were not conservations or preservations. Nor did they advance an ecological agenda. They did not conceive of “the environment” in the contemporary sense. In fact, their representations of the nonhuman world were often contradictory. Weak theoretical approaches that engage center/periphery models as networks of exchange, hybridity, and flow, work embedded in the material turn as well as that of sociological thin description, are all well poised to consider modernism and the environment.

For instance, Saint-Amour highlights network analysis, a method common in digital humanities, as that which enables critics to assess “multi-directional networked exchanges” rather than drawing a center-periphery, Eurocentrist, and diffusionist view of modernism (“Weak Theory,” 451). Thinking of “networks as distinct forms” redraws the views we take of objects––enabling foreground and background to shift status.[5] That which is considered slight, inconsequent, and unimportant can be properly evaluated for its role as a weakly present, weakly functioning, yet pervasive and omnipresent element.

Weak Theory as Thin Description

How might weak theory yield the environmental concept in modernist writing? Let me give one example of a weak theory method applied to one modernist text: the foreground in Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” provides a city park scene in which an aristocratic woman “dying of ennui” drifts listlessly “like a skein blown against a wall.” Her form is legible, but her path forward is less assured. Read through strong theories of modernism, “The Garden” is an exemplar of modernism’s disgust for the poor, ambivalence about women, and reactionary feelings about changing social hierarchies in the early twentieth-century metropole. Of course, this interpretation rests on a fixed consensus about foreground and background. There is an agreement that the human subjects are the focus of the poem and the park elements are peripheral.

Nearly a decade ago Heather Love extolled the uses of thin description as a means of negotiating a middle ground between entrenched methods of interpretation that deploy close reading in service of strong theory and distant reading and print culture studies.[6] Love draws on Erving Goffman’s Relations in Public, which employs microsociological method to examine street scenes––encounters between strangers and other observable phenomena.[7] He advocates this “constructive sociology” approach as a more precise method of cultural analysis than studies that advance over-arching interpretative theses. He self-consciously describes his methods as “a weakened notion of [how] organization is involved” (Goffman, Relations in Public, 2). Less concerned with “the choice of ends or the manner in which these ends may be integrated into a single system of activity,” Goffman self-consciously avoids “absolute generalizations or ones in statistical form” (xiv). This gives him the ability to advance scaled claims that deliver a richer interpretive empiricism. For Goffman, to say that something is found in a certain group or place does not depend upon that being true in all instances. This hedging enables micro textured assertions. For a field such as modernism in which the practitioners themselves held varying, inconsistent, and often unreflective notions about ecological conditions, this microsociological thin description is incredibly useful. Of course, Relations in Public is less well known than The Practice of Everday Life, as Sharon Marcus and Lorraine Daston have recently pointed out. Relations makes local, contingent claims. It does not present the sweeping generalizations that characterize such continually referenced “undead texts” as The Practice of Everyday Life. Yet, as Love notes, it has survived, though transmuted somewhat, in Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. This moderated or “modest” approach (a la the new modesty) is instructive for study of modernism and the environment.

Not Meaning Deeply

Weak theory facilitates environmental thin description. In a serendipitous parallel poetic counterpart with Goffman’s thin description of a street encounter between a “blond model” and a “walker-by,” Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” offers a canny park scene. Goffman explicates how a model (“her”) will be the object of attention in a “structured moment of staring” (Relations in Public, 376). Goffman uses his model and walker-by street scene description to “illustrate his claim about the way that different kinds of persons suffer the attention and inattention of others on the street” (Love, “Close but not Deep,” 379). Similarly, in “The Garden” the flâneur’s fantasy runs freely, searching for signs of encouragement and poses no disruption to the larger social fabric so long as the woman plays the part of “silent sufferance of exposure” (376). The social reality remains intact in so far as the woman does not confront or call-out the objectifying gaze of the speaker of the poem. Whereas a thick description would interpret the cultural significance of the scene in terms of what it says about social hierarchy, thin description focuses on the right-now and the right-here, attending not to “motivation but gestures, behavior, and pattern” (378). The Kensington Gardens woman (“she”) is described as insubstantial and purposeless. Through the comparison “like a skein blown against a wall,” her identity is rendered as correspondence, not quantity. More like an object than a subject, “she” is a constitutive element in a network of park-relations. Rather than deep reading that plumbs a text for preset cultural significance, a thin description allows a poem to mean but not mean deeply.

To focus on background or periphery might once have been met with the accusation of a perverse agenda of unauthorized reading, reading what is not really present, and what does not matter for the text. Fruitfully, a weak theoretical mode like that of thin description presents opportunities for reading the figures of “The Garden” as enmeshed within a complex heterotopic natureculture space that is both imaginative and historical. Further, weak theoretical approaches like network analysis permit the poem to be aggregated with other texts in which natureculture space is weakly backgrounded. Reading “close but not deep,” as Love proposes, yields interpretive empiricism. It is not that literary studies is belatedly catching up with sociological method au courant forty years ago. Rather, it’s that strong theory has needed to play itself out in the field, first. The viability of surface reading does not presuppose that symptomatic or deep readings are invalid. Instead, strong theoretical approaches remain in the background, albeit with a lesser hold. To complete my example, the poem advances quasi-chauvinistic fantasies and Malthusian horror, but it is also a poem that participates in the spatial environmental imagination of modernism. In other words, sociological thin description in the hands of the literary critic enables environment as a weakly omnipresent meaning to become a valid object of attention by permitting foreground and background to be of equal semantic importance.

Totality through the Local, Contingent, Relational, and Descriptive

A background-thin description reading of “The Garden” speaks to Hankins’s observations about recent mapping projects that result from the conjunction of modernist studies and digital humanities. Hankins identifies “fragile geographies” and “provisional models” in Amanda Golden’s “Mapping Jacob’s Room” project, which makes use of the precision of contemporary GIS technology, as well as interpretive non-realist maps like that of Alex Christie and INKE’s modeling of city space (“Weak Powers,” 570). Christie’s “Z-Axis” map offers an “affective map” by redrawing Paris according to significant coordinates in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. As Hankins perceptively notes, these maps are arguments about the field. The modernist heterotopia is freshly imagined through the conscription of contemporary surveillance technologies in these decidedly queer, anti-capitalist imaginaries. “Fragile geographies” maps well onto the tumultuous space of the early twentieth-century public park. The term also usefully draws into the foreground the spatial awareness of settler-colonialist modernists who often were unaware of their complicity in displacing indigenous populations and the attendant environmental damage. Saint-Amour presciently sums up the issue’s contributions as each offering “specific, non-totalizing ways in which weak theory can get to grips with bad totalities” (“Weak Theory,” 455). Since “Earth-rise,” the photo taken from space in 1968, that depicted earth as a little blue marble in a depthless void, the idea of ecological totality has taken hold. As scholars we may need, as Wientzen argues, to contend with that totality, but in the artifacts themselves, the modesty of local, contingent, relational, descriptive studies may best bring to light varied, complex, and nuanced modernist conceptions of environment.


Polly Hember, Suzanne Hobson, Gareth Mills, and Jeff Wallace:  Weak Theory and Digital Modernism: a BAMS Workshop

This contribution to Modernism/modernity’s important debate around weak theory has a more openly practice-based source: the British Association for Modernist Studies’s annual training day for research postgraduates and early career scholars, which took place in Bristol on March 27, 2019. This year’s theme was the digital humanities, and part of the day’s proceedings was a one-hour workshop discussion of Gabriel Hankins’s article “The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies,” from the excellent September 2018 M/m special issue on weak theory.[1] What follows, then, is part report on this workshop, part reflection, from members of the BAMS team—two of its Postgraduate Representatives, and two members of the Executive Steering Committee—on the issues the discussion raised about the relationship of modernism/modernist studies to weak theory. This may best be viewed in the light of Paul Saint-Amour’s proposition that the emergence of modernist studies as a field is co-extensive with a “steady weakening of its key term, modernism.[2]

The workshop leaders used four framing questions to initiate discussion around Hankins’s thought-provoking article. First: following the suggestion that “we are all digital modernists now,” how are digital methods shaping or impacting upon your research in modernism; what has been your own experience of any of the range of specific digital modernism initiatives mentioned by Hankins in his article (“Weak Powers,” 572)? Second: are there, as Stephen Ross, Jentery Sayers and others are cited as contending, “special affinities” between digital methods and modernism as an object of study, and if so, how have you encountered these (569)? Third: what do you make of the different size and scale of the data sets in Hankins’s examples; what is the object of study and how do we decide? And finally: how far do we need “weak theory” or a theory of “weak powers” in order to see the proposed affinities between digital humanities and modernism, as in the contention that “digital modernist studies can and should understand itself through a weak theory of the conjunction of digital method and scholarly field” (570)?


The workshop participants seemed to be divided between those who were already using digital methodologies or methodologies with “explicit digital dependencies” (572) and those who were not, but who had made extensive use of and/or were involved in the creation of digital resources. One of the keynote speakers for the day, Helen Southworth, is part of the team working on the Modernist Archives Publishing Project; another such long-established digital resource, referenced both in the discussion and in Hankins’s essay, is the Modernist Journals Project (MJP). When the conversation turned first to examples of the use of digital methodologies, it was clear that the majority of people in the room had made use of the expanded archive available via one or both of these projects, and in relation to methodologies such as tagging and keyword searches within texts. Some saw their work with these materials as contributing to a “weakened” field either by bringing neglected artists and writers into the foreground or by making provisional and conjectural connections between individuals in order to shift modernism’s centre of gravity away from its “stronger” connotations.

But how far did such work constitute a revolutionizing of the field or paradigm shift as such, and how far was it the application of digitally-derived material to more conventional methodologies, as in Hankins’s suggestion that the Modernist Journals Project, despite the recent innovations of the MJP “Lab,” remains on the whole “within the familiar graphic, indexical, and also codicological conventions of the library archive” (572)? This question arose with stronger emphasis when the discussion turned to those “new modernist geographies” discussed by Hankins as a subset of the “spatial humanities” and used as one of his two main case studies of digital methodology in modernist studies. There was general support for Hankins’s suggestion that maps should always be approached as “provisional, problematic and contaminated,” to avoid reproducing the kinds of epistemological violence seen in the “famous maps of red, blue, green and yellow which so captivated the imagination of the young Marlow” (576). However, questions were also raised about accessibility and about the legibility of anti-mimetic geographies to non-specialist audiences. The discussion noted that spatial humanities projects often involve partnerships between academic and more public-facing or commercial organisations and that in many cases outputs are expected to speak to general audiences. One participant was involved in the researching and production of a digital project mapping bombing raids on London during World War Two; while this departed from cartographic norms in some respects, how might it compare with the epistemological “deformations” of the “Z-Axis” maps of the “affective” Paris of Djuna Barnes’s narratives, as developed by Alex Christie and the INKE team and cited by Hankins. What kinds of reading or interpretative practice are required by the new modernist geographies, if offering an alternative to familiar realist epistemologies?

The—paradoxical?—strength of Hankins’s concluding claim for the role of such work in creating a “weak program” for modernist studies was noted: “Through the ramifying composition of these weak ties, we hope to better capture the particular, provisional, distributed aesthetic life of modernism itself” (582). The discussion raised some key questions with regard to this characterization: first, how to account for the presence of the strongly anti-modern, or anti-modernist, within this weak aesthetic life; and second, how to represent change over time within digitally produced networks that can sometimes seem to abstract these networks from place and time. Both questions relate to the issue of historicizing modernism, as well as of how we might understand the historiography of modernism as a creative practice and critical field. As Paul Saint-Amour points out, modernism has become a strong field in part by being “populous, varied, generative and self-transforming” (“Weak Theory,” 441). What role have digital methodologies and the creation of digital archives played in the creation of this strong ‘weak’ modernism and how might we reflect critically on this process in work that would be unthinkable without the existence of these resources? And how, finally, does all this relate to the aspiration to better capture something called “modernism itself”?

Weak? Strong?

These issues have almost inevitably led us to reflect further upon what Saint-Amour has highlighted as a dialectical instability between the values of weakness and strength, and the significance of this instability within Hankins’s argument on digital modernist studies. Is it weak or strong, either to contribute to a (productive?) dismantling of our object of study or, conversely, to seek in the end to preserve a sense of “modernism itself”? As Saint-Amour suggests, the terms weak and strong are closely and unavoidably bound with their normative usage: strength is a signifier of dominance, totality and endurance, whereas weakness is submissive, occasional and ephemeral. It is in this normative sense that David Ayers warns of an accidental re-articulation, or even re-enactment, of the servility of weakness suggested by Nietszche’s assaults on Christian Humanism. This perhaps overlooks, however, the counter-intuitive value of Hankins’s deployment of the terms, whose specialized rather than normative function gives some definition to the split, already presumed to exist, between method and theory.

Theory should be “weak,” denoting, for Hankins, a conclusion which is tentative, provisional and localized, and takes the form of a generalized statement (a theory) which strictly limits itself to the potential of its own evidence and form. The examples chosen to demonstrate this are the letter and the map, both of which are empirical objects which can be either strongly or weakly bound to a text. A letter by James Joyce directly alluding to the character of Leopold Bloom might be strongly connected; one commenting on his household finances weakly so. Either way, Hankins suggests, a theory developing from their discussion in a critical work should be “particular . . .  granular  . . . embedded in specialist scholarship” (“Weak Powers,” 581). Note the choice of words here, stressing specificity and smallness. Far from being weak, the letter, physically existing in an archive, or a real Parisian road from a Djuna Barnes novel, are atoms of indestructible facticity. Yet the moment these elemental, empirical building blocks are assembled into a collated form through digital method, such as in an “affective map” or a series of epistolary hypertexts, we are invited to consider the weakness of the resulting conclusion as well, with its dependency on the scope of evidence, its relativism, its inherent, “all-too-human,” methodological bias, and its inability to account for unexpected deviation.

From the perspective of the digital humanities, then, it might not make so much difference to Hankins’s essay if the terminological descriptors of weak and strong were reversed. A theory which curtailed itself to the minimum of speculation, which focused on specific, “intricate knots, coteries, and clusters” could be considered strong—it is less refutable, and more precise (581). A stamped, dated, autographed letter is empirically verifiable—strong. A grandiose theory drawing on isolated examples of “canonical” texts, however, could very justifiably be called weak. Sidestepping the normative semantics of weak and strong, it appears that we are still arguing on the ancient territory of epistemology. Yet the way they are deployed as descriptors by Hankins points quite hopefully towards a way of moving beyond extreme views that incarnations of digital humanities are naïve positivism or scientism, or that strong theory is wholly “decryptive,” as Saint-Amour calls it, imposing its “uncovered” principles on everything with a guessed-at universalizability (“Weak Theory,” 444).

“Modernism itself” and its emergence in Hankins’s essay’s final gesture are again thrown into relief by the tendency to associate digital methods and their “weak” conjunctions of information with the field of modernist studies rather than its supposed object of study (“Weak Powers,” 582). This becomes highly pertinent when scholars are in the business of constructing digital tools that outstrip the hermeneutic range of historical people and groups who lived in an analogue culture in the interwar period. For example, it is a matter of historical record that book publishers in the 1920s and 1930s had serious concerns about the efficacy of advertising novels in newspapers, and were unable to ascertain what commercial benefit they were actually getting from their investment.[3] While scholars have yet to construct digitized databases of the financial ledgers of major publishing houses, there is no doubt that when this is inevitably done, they will be able to answer this question with a degree of accuracy that eluded the publishers themselves. Here then, lies an interesting problem: what of the theories of the past, which digital methods can verify or denounce? A weak theory in the field of modernist studies (a positive correlation between book sales and advertising in a certain country at a certain time) might clash with a strong theory held by modernists (advertising does not work) which was a strong motivation for their behavior. It might even cheekily be suggested that there is a similarity between this particular mode of “uncovering” and the “decryptive” aims of strong theory. Perhaps there is a “special affinity” between digital methods and modernist studies, as is suggested. But these methods also throw up a new question for those who would work in a “weak theory” that can “capture the particular, provisional” and the “distributed”: when weak theory sets out to describe the past, whose past is it describing?

On Networks, and a “strong provisionality”

Nevertheless, within the relative autonomy of what we can still call the new modernist studies, “strong” and “weak” retain a clear and transformative structure of value. Saint-Amour’s playful (but serious) characterization of the High (strong) Modernist narrative as “cartoon vitalism” recalls Heather K. Love’s formulation in that founding text of a newer, weaker modernist studies, Bad Modernisms, in 2006:

[a]lthough it made up only a fraction of the aesthetic production in the period, this “heroic” version of modernism has been most consistently identified with modernism itself. The academy has welcomed many of modernism’s most notorious bombsquads, making a place not only for the Men of 1914, but also for the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists. . . . This version of modernism has prevailed to such an extent that innovation and the break with authority now look like core values.[4]

There is a sense in which weak theory appears perfectly paired with digital approaches to modernist scholarship; in questioning strong or “core” values of modernism and focusing on uncovering the linkages and assemblages within weak modernism, digital methodologies undoubtedly offer many helpful tools. Their approaches facilitate the teasing out, assemblage and presentation of those “locally mediated relational threads” that are centrifugally woven together in weak theory, as averred by Wai Chee Dimock.[5] As we have suggested, tagging, keyword searches within texts, mapping, making remote archives more publicly available, digital curation and information visualisation can uncover semantic cartographies and thematic preoccupations between texts, people and culture, strongly attesting to Gabriel Hankins’s claim that “digital modernist studies can and should understand itself through a weak theory of the conjunction of digital method and scholarly field” (“Weak Powers,” 570). It remains, however, for Susan Stanford Friedman to note in her brilliant response that new work in modernist studies needs to be mindful of “who or what” is excluded and included in any given theory and that, she argues, “[i]t is not paranoid to ask such questions.” Finn Fordham’s keynote speech at the training day raised took a different approach to similar issues surrounding digital approaches to scholarship by deftly reflecting on the power and usefulness of networks. He asked, “Can we fly by these net(works)?,” querying whether it is ever possible to successfully, fairly and finitely map a fully representational cultural network or describe a network accurately. Fordham’s interest was in the visualization of modernist networks, such as those developed by the Nation, Genre and Gender project to map the social world of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait. Are such representations, he asked, informed by a suitably precise and rigorous conception of the network itself? And how do we compute or calibrate the gain from the spatial representation in comparison to an attentive – analogue – reading of the novel itself?   

In effect, Fordham was drawing critical attention the rhetorics of “network,” to something like Saint-Amour’s allusion to “the language of the flexible set or constellation” as evidenced in Jessica Berman’s definition of a new (weak?) modernist narrative which “might be best seen as a constellation of rhetorical actions, attitudes, or aesthetic occasions” (“Weak Theory,” 452).[6] Thus, digital approaches to scholarship can chart those constellations, allowing for new connections to form with a sense of collective agency and collaborative practice. However, reflections from our training day, on Hankins’s luminous argument and on the M/m debate around weak theory, encourage early researchers and students to approach both weak theory and digital methodologies with, as Friedman argues, a “strong provisonality.” Those helpful and sparkling constellations should be constructed and charted without starry eyes.


Stephen Ross: Provocations on the Philosophy of Weakness

I couldn’t agree more with Paul Saint-Amour’s claims both that modernism originated in a powerful weakening of grand theories, and that after a mid-century myth-making hiatus modernist studies have come to life on the basis of a continuing commitment to weakening “modernism.”[1] This weakening has, as Saint-Amour reminds us, been fundamental to the new modernist studies’ expansions of the field on multiple fronts. As David James has put it, “Few would deem this inclination for expansion a bad thing, of course. And if modernism’s cartographic and diachronic enlargement arrogates intellectual capital to those objects or conditions it (newly) designates, then this process of adding value is analytically enriching and enabling.” Weakening in this respect is at once evaluative and descriptive: “modernism” need no longer be thought of as exclusive and restrictive; and as such it can accommodate works, movements, and figures that were excluded under the “strong” (some might say “high”) modernism of yesteryear. The explosive growth of the field, and its continued vitality after decades of such growth indicates that this twofold “weakness” is a powerful force indeed.

Even so, the new weakness is not without its problems.[2] I want to suggest seven of them here, offered less in the vein of a systematic critique than as provocations to think through some of its implications.

Provocation 1:  The Strength of Weakness, or . . . ?

Weak theory is incredibly hard to respond to in large part because it says so little with any force. It says plenty, to be sure, but it does so with so many qualifications and retractions that it can be difficult to know which part requires a response (if any). That said, one thing seems clear: strength is out of favor.[3] I won’t go to the extent of claiming that a Nietzschean transvaluation of all values has taken place, but something analogous may be afoot. Understood variously as depth, critique, totalization, grands récits, meaning, and significance, strength works in this discursive matrix as an ill omen. And yet . . .

And yet Saint-Amour at least is quite clear that the intersection of weak theory and weak modernism does not necessarily mean sacrificing strength tout court: “This need not entail relinquishing the prospect of every kind of strength in every context. . . . But it would mean letting go of strength, including strength-in-theory, as perforce a good” (456). Elsewhere, discussing Mark Granovetter and outlining Gianni Vattimo’s notion of pensiero debole, Saint-Amour likewise invokes versions of strength, either derived from or dependent upon forms of weakness. The issue seems to be less the denigration of strength than “an interest in the work accomplished by the proximate, the provisional, and the probabilistic” (440). That seems fair enough, especially if we accept the notion that literary criticism has been dominated by theories and methods of strong reading. In a sense, there is nothing to quibble with here. Strength seems still to be all right, if rather decentered by the new weakness. And yet . . .

And yet Saint-Amour repeatedly goes out of his way to avoid appearing to advocate strength, even where doing so seems logical. After outlining a pretty strong argument for why modernism could be considered “weak thought par excellence,” Saint-Amour willfully backs off precisely to avoid appearing to endorse strength: “I’ve struggled, while writing this introduction, not to pluck strength from the jaws of weakness” (454). Likewise, he worries that weakness may devolve into a power play: “When does the weakening of a field’s central term participate, deliberately or not, in a “lose to win” strategy, a performatively submissive showing of the belly that draws attention away from a territorial dominance-bid?” (442). Are these forms of strength different from the kind Saint-Amour says we need not necessarily give up? Do they mean that not only is strength not “perforce a good” but that it is perforce to be avoided? How are we to understand strength now? As something we can only keep as long as we don’t want it, and try not to use it?

Provocation 2: The Straw Man

A key problem with the new weakness is its apparent reliance upon a straw-man opponent. Virtually all of the major statements on behalf of weakness feature some version of the “strong” critique against which the new weakness is posed. Saint-Amour sums them up nicely: the proponents of “the portrait of the artwork as locus of autonomy from ideology and the portrait of the critic as heroic demystifier of ideology” advance a strong theoretical view that “attempts to ride its sovereign axioms to ‘a future never for a moment in doubt,’” as an inevitable consequence of a conception of modernism that anchors “a strong, all-or-nothing, unified theory of its field” (“Weak Theory” 439, 445, 453).

No doubt I do not read enough, or at least not enough of the right sort of thing, but I simply do not recognize these descriptions in contemporary modernist studies. I can’t think of a single critic who imagines herself to be a hero, swooping down upon a work to expose its ideological impurities. As Saint-Amour tells us, strong versions of the drive to weakness often “produce a caricature of all ‘critique’ as addicted to binary decipherment and the dodgy rabbit-out-of-a-hat stagecraft of revelation” (“Weak Theory,” 444). But a caricature is not something to take too seriously when formulating a scholarly position, and I worry that the new weakness derives much of its force from precisely the fact that it has no real opponents. No doubt such opponents existed in the past, but the vast majority of the work published in Modernism/modernity, for instance, at least since I’ve been reading it has been reparative, recuperative, and inclusive. Who, then, are we actually arguing against when we argue for weakness?[4]

Provocation 3:  The False Premise

As Saint-Amour indicates, modernist studies is already predicated upon a weakened sense of “modernism.” Saint-Amour goes on:

modernist studies today [is] not quite a Sedgwickian venture, where one does little more than describe what one purports to explain, but something closer to Vattimo’s practice of weakening the monopolistic or sovereign hold of particular terms by rotating through them, according one a local primacy in one place, then relegating it to an ancillary, latent, or even fallow role in another. (“Weak Theory,” 446)

This is, to my mind, exactly right. Perhaps it violates the commitment to weakness to say it, but here goes: the new modernist studies has been about weakening the immanent theory of modernism from its very beginnings, going back at least as far as Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank.[5] So we should ask, does the new weakness simply name what modernist studies has been doing for some time? And if so, what do we gain now by labelling it (anew)?

Provocation 4:  The Critique of Critique

Perhaps my greatest confusion with the new weakness has to do with its insistence on a narrowly constrained understanding of critique. If critique is the hallmark of strong theory, then a strong theory of critique is essential to the new weakness’s weakening impulse. For the advocates of the new weakness, critique is synonymous with the hermeneutics of suspicion. It describes a detached method of reading in which critics expose texts’ ideological commitments. The name of the game is unmasking cultural products as ideological artifacts—fetishes, even—that encode dynamics of power, hegemony, and domination. Central to that version of critique is the absence of affect. Indeed, affect is often opposed to critique as though the two were inherently incompatible: where there is critique, there is little room for aesthetic experience, appreciation, even love of the object in question. It’s a deeply idiosyncratic—perhaps localized, isolated, (and therefore weak?)—understanding of critique.

It’s also plainly a distortion that elides a long history of critique as intimately bound up with affect. It ignores theorizations of critique going back at least to Marx’s 1840s letters to Arnold Ruge, in which he identifies shame as the ground for revolution.[6] It skips over Max Horkheimer’s 1937 “Traditional and Critical Theory,” which identifies the affect of disinterestedness as a key problem with Kantian critique. At best it nods casually to Walter Benjamin’s celebration of experience and aura. It completely ignores Judith Butler’s extended consideration of critique, in which, following Kant, she explicitly states that

critique is not merely or only a sort of nay-saying, an effort to take apart and demolish an existing structure. Rather, critique is the operation that seeks to understand how delimited conditions form the basis for the legitimate use of reason in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what may be hoped.[7]

In this, Butler concurs with Michel Foucault: the negation inherent in critique “delineates and animates a new set of positions for the subject; it is inventive and, in that sense, operates as a determinate negation in Hegel’s sense” (“Critique, Dissent,” 792). As Foucault put it: “as a very first definition of critique, this general characterization: the art of not being governed quite so much.”[8] (45). In Foucault’s terms, critique sounds very much like Vattimo’s insistence upon the weakening of sovereign theories as fundamental to pensiero debole. Where is this genealogy of critique in the reductive versions that underwrite the new weakness’s assault?

Provocation 5­: Poesia/Theoria

The new weakness seems bent on refusing a fundamental principle of much contemporary criticism: that aesthetic objects think, that there is a fundamental connection between poesia and theoria.[9] If we accept that novels think, then we must figure out how they think (as Nancy Fraser asked), and explore what they think about. We must think about aesthetic objects as active engagements with their contexts, even sometimes as critiques of those contexts. A narrow critique of Heart of Darkness might conclude that it is a racist novel. But another mode of reading might also ask whether Heart of Darkness is itself a critique—of imperialism, global capitalism, Euro-narcissism, orientalism. Doing so would seem to exceed the modest remit of surface reading and description, but it also eludes the notion of critique-as-hit-job. This is a powerful mode of critique that must be preserved in all its messy weakness. It’s one way that weak theory might “abet or reshape critique rather than supersede it” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 440). This is the direction I hope we’ll see the new weakness take, as we eschew the “brittler binaries” by which it has thus far staked its claim and look for modes of conciliation instead of (ironically) strong binarisms (440).

Provocation 6:  Giving up the Game

Faced with surging “politics of the strongman . . . on a global scale,” Saint-Amour declares, “those of us who work in weakly theorized disciplines such as the humanities will need to test our models of subjects, objects, and their relations under this intensifying pressure” (456). I worry that the modesty of this proposal, along with the larger embrace of weakness, undermines the potential of the humanities to contribute meaningfully to public debate over the kind of world we want. I am not calling for a return of heroic self-deceptions of the bumper-sticker variety one sees on laptops from time to time: “this machine kills fascists.” But nor do I think it helpful to retreat into localization, particularity, and isolation when broad resistance and powerful forms of critique may be more productive. Given a more nuanced understanding of critique, might we understand the role of criticism along Foucault’s terms instead of those of the proponents of the new weakness: as a mode of resistance to totalization rather than its embrace?

More broadly still, I want to suggest that some of the anxiety surrounding the advent of the new weakness is directly linked to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change. Thomas S. Davis has written that “There’s little evidence in recent literary criticism that the Anthropocene has precipitated a methodological crisis,” but I wonder whether the new weakness might not be exactly that.[10] I’m prompted in this regard by the general retrenchment of the new weakness away from frontal engagement with the enormous realities of capitalism, imperialism, and globalism. But I’m specifically engaged by what I take to be a telling moment in Best and Marcus’s introduction to their special issue of Representations. There, they turn to Latour to enunciate “the best way to move past the impasses created by what has become an excessive emphasis on ideological demystification”:

Referring to the ease with which conservatives question global warming by referring to it as a social construction rather than a scientific truth, he asks, “While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?” (18–19)

As Davis brilliantly illustrates vis-à-vis Len Lye and J. G. Ballard, the answer is not nearly so simple as all that: “Lye and Ballard suggest to us that an attunement [sic] to the mediated thinking of art objects can disclose for us alternative imaginings of the entangled webs of human histories and planetary futures” (677). When ideology critique has been weaponized for the purposes of climate-change denial, the stakes are enormous and the task for the humanities shifting. But if anything seems clear, it is that more, not less, engagement with how aesthetic objects think about, engage, mediate, and even critique their contexts is going to be vital in our response. We must, I argue, be willing to abstract, to generalize, and to advance strong arguments even when we are not sure that we are right.

Provocation 7:  Exhaustion

As Saint-Amour makes clear, though we may think of evaluative weakness and descriptive weakness separately, their connotations inevitably seep together:

[E]ven the ostensibly non-normative meanings of weak . . . are tinged with its normative ones. . . .  In considering what weakness might afford us theoretically or methodologically, we are still and always confronting a term of subjection. Rather than pretend we can simply hive off this history by thickening a few semantic firewalls, we do better to keep in mind the tendency of descriptive and dismissive senses of weakness to interfere with one another. (438)

The implications of this seepage for the ongoing expansion of modernism are anything but neutral. Constant weakening of the sort that has typified modernist studies for nearly thirty years now has, I propose, its limits. These are threefold.

First, there is the problem of ending up with a term emptied of all significance, so that modernism emerges not as weak thought par excellence, but as weak thought in extremis: a thing of no consistency, use, or value, as Saint-Amour worries. Definitions of modernism that steadfastly remain “definitionally and constitutively vague” illustrate the extent to which Saint-Amour’s fear is already taking concrete shape (452). Such definitions do more than risk reducing “modernism” to a term without content; they produce it as such, as a signifier with no signified. In the process, they risk leaving us with the critical equivalent of a dead genre, as described by the new weakness’s Public Enemy No.1, Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious: a “narrative ideologeme whose outer form, secreted like a shell or exoskeleton, continues to emit its ideological message long after the extinction of its host” (151). We risk being left with a term that is little else than an affective husk, forcing the question: Why do we keep using it at all?

Second, and more importantly, such definitions rob the term of agency just when it is being taken up and adopted by historically marginalized artists and critics around the world. In my view, modernism names a mode of aesthetic agency, a means by which the aesthetic is self-consciously deployed as a mode of critique (in the Butler/Foucault/Marx vein). To rob it of that power just as it is being adopted by those traditionally marginalized in accounts of modernism—or to extend it so widely that it loses all force by being simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, available to anyone in any situation and thus of little use to anyone—is a betrayal of precisely the utopian potential with which it ought to be aligned.

Third, there is the problem of linking “weakness” to inclusion, especially global inclusion of non-canonical literatures and arts. This problem floats around the slippage between descriptive and evaluative forms of weakness, with the risk that the inclusion of, say, Indigenous modernisms is viewed as both consequent and dependent upon the weakening of modernism. Such a move may well be heard in terms of condescension: “We’ve weakened modernism enough that you can be admitted to the club now; and of course, your admission to the club further weakens modernism. But we mean that descriptively, not evaluatively—I’m sure you understand.” Talk about losing to win. The globalizing impulse runs itself out and becomes only multiple particularities just when those particularities stood on the cusp of joining a global community of modernism.[11]

A Single Antithesis:  Yes, and…

As always when presented with binaries, we tend to ask why we can’t have both/and instead of either/or. And that’s how I’d like to conclude. If the new weakness leads to a weakening of critique in its strongman mode (wherever that appears), then so much the better. If it induces scholars to revisit and challenge their preconceptions about what makes modernism modernism, better still. The essays in this special issue have shown what the very best of this kind of criticism can accomplish, and make me feel somewhat sheepish for my hand-wringing, I confess. Perhaps weak theory has produced that rarest of all beasts: an idea that works better in practice than it does in theory.

Notes for Omri Moses

[1] Forrest Gander, Be With (New York: New Directions, 2018), 27.

[2] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 181.

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

[4] Silvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, 4 vols. (New York: Springer, 1962), 433–34.

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

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

[7] Rita Felski, “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (2011): 573–91, 580.

[8] Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 4.

[9] 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, 134.

[10] Walter J. Freedman, “Consciousness, Intentionality, and Causality,” in Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?, ed. Susan Pockett, William P. Banks, and Shaun Gallagher (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 73-105, 97.

[11] Benjamin Kahan, “Volitional Etiologies: Toward a Weak Theory of Etiology,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 551–68, 552.

[12] Susan Oyama, Evolution’s Eye: A System’s View of the Biology-Culture Divide (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 48.

Notes for Lisa Mendelman

[1] Paul Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 438–459, 437.

[2] See Jed Esty, Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Marta Figlerowicz, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Omri Moses, Out of Character: Modernism, Vitalism, and Psychic Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).

[3] Elizabeth Sheehan, “Strong and Weak Repetitions,” “Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part II,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus, 4, no. 1 (2019).

[4] Saint-Amour notes that he “struggled, while writing this introduction, not to pluck strength from the jaws of weakness,” saved by “the paranoid reader in me [who] immediately began to list humiliating exceptions to such a claim” (“Weak Theory,” 454). Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” posits its readerly positions as complementarities not alternatives. But the both/and—explicit in Sedgwick’s title, essay, and subsequent writing—often gets lost in the work it has enabled (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003], 123–51). See also “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106, no. 3 (2007): 625–642. Thanks to Benjy Kahan for helping me locate the latter piece.

[5] Grace Lavery, “On Being Criticized,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 499–516.

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

[7] As others have pointed out, the weak theorist’s “overt and covert forms of virtue-signaling” (Jaffe and Miller) perform the “affective halo” (Fusco) of “the new humility” (Laird), “mak[ing] limited claims . . . which see the virtue of such limits” while extoling the corollary “virtues of weakness” in their literary subjects (Wientzen). Of course, the weak theorist also “remember[s] . . . that the act of calling out another party for virtue signaling is itself a form of virtue signaling” (Mak). The weak theorist’s animating “feeling of modesty” (Tang) nonetheless turns out to be elliptically universalizing and authoritative (Ayers), while also trafficking in problematic vulnerability (Laird) and vexed reparative strategies (Sheehan).

[8] See Lisa Mendelman, “Ambivalence and Irony: Gendered Forms in Interwar America.” Arizona Quarterly 71, no. 4 (2015): 23–52. 

[9] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–549, 530, 519.

[10] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 28. Ruth Leys offers perhaps the best-known critique of affect theory’s Cartesianism and scientism (“The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 3 (2011): 434–72). See also Margaret Wetherell, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (Los Angeles: Sage, 2012); Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard, “Biology’s Gift: Interrogating the Turn to Affect,” Body & Society 16, no. 1 (2010): 29–56; and Adam Frank, Transferential Poetics, from Poe to Warhol (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

[11] John Cromby and Martin E. H. Willis criticize Leys’s work along these lines. See “Affect—or Feeling (After Leys)?” Theory & Psychology 26, no. 4 (2016): 476–95.

[12] See, for example, Roger Cooter, “Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique: Why Historians of Science Need to Take the Neuro-Turn Seriously,” Isis 105, no. 1 (2014): 145–54; Clare Hemmings, “Invoking Affect.” Cultural Studies 19, no.5 (2005): 548–67; Leys, “The Turn to Affect”; and Papoulias and Callard, “Biology’s Gift.”

[13] Discussions of embodied subjectivity often draw on the work of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. See, for example, the work of Cromby, archaeologist Rosemary A. Joyce, and feminist philosopher Margaret A. McLaren. The term “minded-body” was coined by queer theorist Ladelle McWhorter and has been recently elaborated by geographer Allison Hayes-Conroy. The feminist critic Kathleen Woodward has developed a theory of bodymind, as Scott Herring’s essay also notes.

[14] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Introduction” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 1–26, 16.

[15] Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Ontario: Broadview, 2001), 64.

[16] I use “modernist-era” here to describe the long arc of modernist sensibility traced by the essays.

[17] Ezra Pound, “The Serious Artist” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1935), 41–57, 45.

Notes for Lisi Schoenbach

[1]  For instance, in “Steps to Economic Recovery” (1933), Dewey bemoaned the inequities of the American tax system, which “lets off the parasites, exploiters and the privileged,—who ought to be relieved entirely of their gorged excess” (John Dewey, The Later Works 1925–1953, vol. 9, ed. Jo Ann Boydston [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986],  61–65, 64). Quoted in Richard J. Bernstein, “John Dewey’s Encounter with Leon Trotsky,” Public Seminar, March 19, 2014.

[2] Jonathan Moreno and R. Scott Frey, “Dewey’s Critique of Marxism,” Sociological Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1985): 21-34. For a fuller account of the incredible story of the Dewey Commission, see James T. Farrell, “Dewey in Mexico,” in John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom, ed. Sidney Hook (New York: Dial Press, 1950), 351-377, and Alan Ward, “Memories of the Dewey Commission: Forty Years Later,” Antioch Review 35, no. 4 (1977): 438–51.

[3] The full exchange is collected in Their Morals and Ours, ed. George Novak (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973).

[4] John Dewey, “Democracy is Radical,” in The Later Works 1925-1953, vol. 11, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 296–300, 298.

[5] John Dewey, “Introductory Statement of the Commission of Inquiry,” in The Later Works 1925-1953, vol. 11, 306–09, 309.

[6] Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 103.

[7] Richard Rorty, “Movements and Campaigns,” in Achieving Our Country, 111–24, 113. The essay was first presented at a memorial conference for Irving Howe at CUNY in April 1994, and then appeared in Dissent (Winter 1995): 55-60

[8] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 454.

Notes for Margaret Konkol

[1] Benjamin Kahan, “Volitional Etiologies: Toward a Weak Theory of Etiology, ” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 551–68, 553; Gabriel Hankins, “The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 569–85, 570. 

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

[3] Paul Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 438–59, 451.

[4] See Benjamin Bagocius, “Queer Entomology: Virginia Woolf’s Butterflies,” Modernism/modernity 24, no. 4 (2017): 723–50; Chris Danta, “The Theology of Personification: Allegory and Nonhuman Agency in the Work of T. F. Powys,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 4 (2018): 709–28; Michelle Niemann, “Towards an Ecopoetics of Food: Plants, Agricultural Politics, and Colonized Landscapes in Lorine Niedecker’s Condensery,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 1 (2018): 135–60.

[5] Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 113.

[6] Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History. 41. no. 2 (2010): 371–91.

[7] Erving Goffman, Relations in Public. (New York: Basic Books), 1971.

Notes for Polly Hember, Suzanne Hobson, Gareth Mills, and Jeff Wallace

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

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

[3] W. G. Taylor, “Publishing,” in The Book World: A New Survey, ed. John Hampden (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1936), 67.

[4] Heather K. Love, “Forced Exile: Walter Pater’s Queer Modernism,” in Bad Modernisms, ed. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 19–43, 19–20.

[5] Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry, 39 no. 4 (2013): 732–753, 737.

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

Notes for Stephen Ross

Thanks to Fabio Ackelrud Durão, Kevin Tunnicliffe, and Amy Tang for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

[1] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–459, 455.

[2] “The new weakness” is my short-hand here for post-critique, surface reading, mere reading, descriptive reading, distant reading, reading that is close but not deep, microsociological reading, and weak theory.

[3] See Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2015); Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 732–53; Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 no. 1 (2009): 1­–21; Bruno Latour, “Why has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry 30, No. 2 (2004): 225-248; Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41, no. 2 (2010): 371–91, as well as Saint-Amour.

[4] The only figure consistently introduced as the standard-bearer of strong critique is Fredric Jameson, and really just one of his works: The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Action (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981). See Dimock, “Weak Theory,” 744; Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 2–3; and Felski, The Limits of Critique, 19, 56–7, 64, 96. I do not have room to elaborate upon this oddity in the new weakness, but it bears consideration.

[5] Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).

[6] See letter from Marx to Ruge, March 1843.

[7] Judith Butler, “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (2009): 773-795, 787.

[8] Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotexte, 2007), 41-81.

[9] I might include teknē in here as well, but that would require an even more extended response.

[10] Thomas S. Davis, “Fossils of Tomorrow: Len Lye, J. G. Ballard, and Planetary Futures. Modern Fiction Studies 64, no. 4 (2018): 659–679, 662.

[11] For an incisive articulation of the potential problems with “weak” modernism’s expansions, see David James’s Print Plus cluster, “Modernism’s Contemporary Affects.” For another account of the affective valences of “modernism” in place of its shrinking conceptual force, see Thomas S. Davis and Nathan K. Hensley’s cluster “Scale and Form; or, What Was Global Modernism?”