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Global modernism is almost always talked about in terms of expansion: more archives, more languages, longer time frames, wider geographies. I would like to talk about it in terms of scalability. Has the global turn within modernist studies made the term “modernism” more or less scalable? Scalability refers to the ability of a system, network, or project to handle growth without changing its governing principles—that is, to accommodate more material with minimum expenditure. In software design, an algorithm that scales well can handle greater and greater amounts of data without changing its design. A scalable business model is one that can expand into new markets without changing its organization. When it comes to knowledge production in the sciences, scalability is a virtue. Anna Tsing writes, “the ability to make one’s research framework apply to greater scales, without changing the research questions, has become a hallmark of modern knowledge.”[1] Although Tsing generalizes from scientific knowledge to modern knowledge, few scholars working in the humanities today will immediately recognize scalability as a virtue. Some may even see it as a vice—too redolent of positivism and homogenization under a master standard. Humanists, especially those committed to close reading, concrete histories, and thick descriptions, have learned to value how our objects of study defy our expectations and demand that we question and even change our conceptual principles in response.

Many literary scholars are suspicious of easily scalable reading, as we see from the robust and sometimes heated debates over quantitative methods and big data in the digital humanities. However, this disciplinary suspicion is much older and more ingrained than the quantitative turn; it reflects a more general and paradoxical aversion to the disciplining of reading into a reproducible method. Indeed, a reading method, while part and parcel of professional study, is often met with the greatest distaste when it appears scalable, that is, when it seems most capable of saturating a field and producing cookie-cutter interpretations of singular works. Global modernism, as a method of doing modernist studies, has met with similar distaste from critics who argue against its hegemonic reductions and its generalizing tendencies. Bashir Abu-Mennah in this cluster characterizes global modernism as an exercise in “identitarian self-affirmation” that brings a whole host of non-European texts and cultures under its umbrella. Worse still, Abu-Mennah argues, the diversification of modernism blunts its critical edge and renders it a “playful companion” to global capitalism. Proponents of a more localized modernism charge that scaling modernism up flattens out its aesthetic and historical distinctiveness. The more modernism becomes global, the more epistemologically colonizing and conceptually diluted it must be.

Opposition to global modernism on the grounds of both hegemony and dilution is internally contradictory given that modernism cannot affirm its own (European) image if that image is fundamentally changed through its expansion. To think about modernism’s globality in terms of scalability rather than expansion is to see with more clarity the effects of the field’s growth. If scalability is defined by smooth expansion in which additional objects fit within a preexisting framework, then modernism has become global without scaling well at all. In fact, it has scaled poorly. This is a good thing. As Paul Saint-Amour argues, modernist studies has flourished as a field even as “its immanent theory of modernism has weakened and become less axiomatic, more conjectural, more conjunctural.”[2] Drawing on the work of Susan Stanford Friedman, Jessica Berman, Eric Hayot, and Tsitsi Jaji, he shows how the institutional framework for modernism has changed profoundly since the global turn. No longer animated by strict formal markers or periodized boundaries, characterizations of modernism have moved away from exclusive and binary definitions (i.e. either a work is modernist or it isn’t) toward speculative and provisional uses of the term. Modernism may now designate an attitude or temperament, a system of literary world-making, or a set of relationships with modernity. Its purview has expanded because those scholars most strongly affiliated with the global turn have exploded rather than scaled up the field’s longstanding principles of organization, namely early twentieth-century periodization, experimental form, and iconoclastic writers.

Friedman, for example, advocates for a transformational rather than additive approach to modernism that does away with the “familiar laundry-list of aesthetic properties drawn from the Western culture capitals of the early twentieth century as the definitional core of modernism.”[3] Berman, too, resists typology as an index of modernism at the global scale: “Even where modernism seems to exhibit certain formal preoccupations, such as textual defamiliarization, refusal of strict verisimilitude, or play with the vagaries of space and time, it is clear they are neither necessary nor ubiquitous conditions but rather signs or symptoms of a particular attitude toward a specific literary horizon of expectations.”[4] Mark Wollaeger warns against conflating select writers with entire movements: “Joyce did indeed influence [Sei] Ito, and Ito did indeed imitate Joyce, but Ito was not influenced by a monolithic Western agent named ‘modernism’ nor did he imitate one.”[5] As scholars have worked to reconceive modernism on a global scale, they have multiplied the temporalities of modernism’s development rather than universalized a single timeline; they have retained investments in the formal specificity of aesthetic works while unbinding modernism from a specific set of formal devices; they have identified a wider array of contributors to modernism (like Ito ); and they have deployed a metacritical language that contests the originary “Western-ness” of modernism from the outset. Thinking about modernism at the global scale has thus yielded an unexpected rejection of scalability, which, in turn, has lessons for how scholarly discourses might elude complicity with the scaling imperatives of global capitalism.

The first lesson is that definitional proliferation (negatively termed dilution above) is sometimes more epistemologically useful and descriptively accurate than definitional retrenchment. Pamela Caughie has argued against streamlining modernism, noting that resolving the confusion around its definitional terms is less important than explaining with precision the “divergent perspectives and motives” that create such confusion.[6] Caughie’s emphasis on tracing a discourse rather than unifying a field gives the edge to thickening descriptions of modernism’s instantiations over thinning abstractions of modernism as a ruling concept. This preference for description over abstraction informs modernist studies’s morphing, under the sign of the global, into what Wai Chee Dimock would call a “nonsovereign field,” a field that “as a fully integrated and fully rationalized entity, simply does not exist.”[7]

Dimock’s coinage reveals the second lesson of the “global” in global modernism: that oppositional structures of knowledge must resist recapitulating the logics of the systems that they critique. I won’t pretend that this lesson is new, but I will claim that the nonsovereign “global” in global modernism is fundamentally different from the sovereign “global” in global capitalism. Such a difference matters when trying to think outside of the logic of capitalism, for which scalability represents the ever-pressing drive to extract, abstract, and accumulate wealth with a minimum of expenditure. Whatever one thinks of the weak theory animating global modernism, its commitment to non-scalability emphatically contradicts the strong will to scale operating within even decentralized post-Fordist incarnations of capitalism.[8] The “global” in global modernism, from this angle, carries within it the potential, if not the guarantee, of an oppositional impulse within the arena of knowledge production. In eschewing smooth scalability, global modernism deviates from rather than mimics the circulatory strategies indicative of global capital.

When the editors of this cluster asked us to ponder matters of global scale and form, one of the major methodologies they asked us to consider was world-systems theory. They asked how Immanuel Wallerstein’s method might aid us in generating “more complex economic and geopolitical questions for the‘global turn’ in modernist studies?” Further, if we were sympathetic to world-systems principles of analysis, how might we justify reconciling their macro-level concerns with the micro-level insights and rewards of close reading singular artworks? These are great questions, even if I have never been very sympathetic to world-systems analysis for all the usual reasons. It undervalues culture and historical contingency; it overstates the coherence of the “world” as a unit of analysis; it supposes that there can only be one right unit of analysis at which the systemic effects of capitalism can be properly witnessed and understood. And yet I am sympathetic to the development of more complex geopolitical questions for global modernism and to the challenge that world-systems analysis poses to humanists. As David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi assert, the method’s indifference to culture compels humanists to make the case for cultural understanding and for our particularly hermeneutic and deeply reflective modes of knowledge production.[9]

It seems to me that when specifically weak humanist theories of global modernism confront specifically strong social scientific theories of the world-system both benefit. The encounter compels the self-reflexivity about method and stakes that is necessary for remembering thought’s work in the world. Global modernism is charged with tying its methodological debates to matters of political and economic importance and world-systems theory is charged with attending to rather than diminishing low and mid-level sites of conflict and inconsistency. But it is ultimately the ability to think not just about the “right” scale but about the distinct politics of scalability informing varieties of global thought that gives humanists the edge in devising new ways for addressing world-systemic problems without replicating the logic of oppressive systems. Because we not only withstand, but also value and learn from the way modernism splinters, subdivides, and resists full rationalization within a weakly contoured field of knowledge, we become more adept at developing critical languages that do not mirror and thereby unwittingly affirm the inexorable rationality that large systems, like global capitalism, ascribe to themselves.

The reason humanists can find value in the “messiness” of weak theory and nonsovereign fields is because of our ritual engagement with complexly creative works. Such works habituate us to contradiction and irresolution; they subject strong explanations of the workings of the world to subtle, indirect, and sometimes direct interrogation. Some further set their sights on matters of global inequality and world-systemic violence. In my own research, I have identified such works with what I call chimeras of form. Inspired by the mythical figure of the chimera, a “lionheaded goatbodied serpentailed impossibilit[y],” to quote Salman Rushdie, chimeras of form are paradoxically bounded and unbounded.[10] They renew attention to as well as complicate the relationship between parts and wholes in an artwork. In the course of testing traditional measures of aesthetic form, such as unity, wholeness, cohesion, and harmony, they also test how these principles operate as explanations of collective identity and social relation within a world order that demands cosmopolitical frames of inquiry.

Chimeras of form run taxonomic interference through the world-system. They make possible an incremental and internally fissured understanding of totality in which multiple kinds of political communities (for example, empires, nations, and federations) and regulatory regimes (for example, imperial rule, migration laws, human rights intervention, postcolonial states, uneven development, neoliberal privatization) channel and splinter systemic power. However, and here is where interference comes in, chimeras of form also make it difficult to separate out one ordering principle from another. Just as the chimeric body makes it harder to look at a lion, goat, or serpent in the same way again, chimeric literary forms make it harder to conceive of distinct ordering principles as unchanged by their interaction. Rather than isolate diverging theories of internationalism and incompatible accounts of global power from one another, chimeras of form bring them together and derive new categories of analysis from their imperfect interaction.

The “root canal” is one exemplary chimera of form that I discuss in my book.[11] I raise it here because of the conceptual insights it brings to the problem of totality as an epistemological as well as geopolitical problem. The concept comes from the novel White Teeth (2000) in which Zadie Smith turns a painful dental procedure into a metaphor for deciphering the causalities of migration in all their economic, historical, and psychological complexity. Chapters entitled “The Root Canals of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal,” “The Root Canals of Mangal Pande,” and “The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden,” inject recursion into the novel’s largely progressive plot, suggesting that readers who want to understand the diverse demographics of northwest London circa 1970–1990 (the primary setting of the novel) will need to know something about the Eastern Europe of 1945, the India of 1857, and the Jamaica of 1900 respectively. Root canals as metaphor and narrative form present an image of the global whole as relational, composed of overlapping territories and intertwined histories, to invoke Edward Said’s classic terms, and requiring an inter-imperial vantage point, to reference Laura Doyle’s piece in this cluster.[12] Doyle’s inter-imperial analysis provincializes Europe by privileging long historical arcs through which multiple empires interact, and it is one powerful answer to the root canal’s implicit question: how far back must we go to understand the present? Smith’s root canals broach the overwhelming, indeed impossible representational project of discerning totality and hence causality within the world-system, by embracing techniques of digression and extraneousness as paradoxically essential sources of formal organization and political reflection. These non-scalable techniques defy the smooth expansion of narrative space to encompass diverse political histories; yet Smith’s root canals as basic material units—chapters in a novel—also promote the generalization, division, and abstraction of stories into bounded units as necessary tools of meaning-making.

Nicholas Dames has argued that the literary history of the chapter, that plain and perennially overlooked element of novel form, discloses a host of concerns about the art of understanding. On one hand, chapters function as “miniature narratives that observe Aristotle’s ‘unities’ of time, place, and action, and that can be extracted from the stream of life as a whole.”[13] On the other, that extractable holism raises the specter of compromised understanding: “A comprehension of smaller parts rather than coherent wholes might, Locke worried, be a lesser comprehension” (Dames, “Trollope’s Chapters,” 856). Although Dames attributes a fear of partial knowledge to John Locke, the attribution is equally applicable to Marxian methodologies that warn against reification and to Smith herself, who realizes the always present danger of obscuring the whole story while trying to tell it. And yet to deny the persistence of obscurity as part of the whole story of capitalist modernity is to believe capitalism’s own story about itself.

Smith makes the anxieties and necessities of partial knowledge a concern of her writing. Her interest in root canals in White Teeth as both metaphors for long-distance causalities and instances of materially bounded chapters, augers her formal experiments with size and scale, as well as totality and partiality, in her more recent works about growing inequality in North West London. NW (2012), for instance, revolves obsessively around a “two-mile square of city.”[14] This square is neither allegorical nor metonymic of the wider world. It is not a part standing in for the whole. Rather, NW’s vitality, conceptually as well as diegetically, derives from its status as an irreducibly specific abstraction: a postal zone that is also a gentrifying neighborhood. The modest scale of NW (local by a local’s standards) disappears in world-systems theory’s division of global space, and yet this patch of London is Smith’s ground zero for addressing world-systemic ills. In her short story “The Embassy of Cambodia,” it is populated by a labor pool drawn from African refugees whose working conditions range from deeply precarious to actually enslaved. In her essay “The North West London Blues,” it is the site of a redevelopment project that will tear down a public library to build luxury condominiums. By relentlessly focusing on a small part of London, unnoticed beyond the city and absolutely insignificant by the terms of world-systemic analysis, Smith shows the inadequacy of a strongly scalable theory to addressing the finer striations of global capital and labor flows as they manifest within particular places.

These striations are, of course, the very things that turn global inequality into a felt fact of life in London’s households and on its streets. To address them, Smith offers not a strong theory of totality in NW, but a weak form of it, the disrupted panorama:

The view was cross-hatched. St Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another. Half a tree. Half a car. Cupolas, spires. Squares, rectangles, half-moons, stars. It was impossible to get any sense of the whole. From up here the bus lane was a red gash through the city. The tower blocks were the only thing . . . that made any sense, separated from each other yet communicating. From this distance they had a logic, stone posts driven into an ancient field, waiting for something to be laid on top of them, a statue, perhaps, or a platform. (384)

In this passage, Natalie, the novel’s formerly working-class protagonist, looks out at London from atop Hornsey Lane Bridge. She sees the tower blocks of Caldwell, the estate where she grew up, and a potent symbol of the welfare state’s facilitation of her upward mobility. However, she also sees St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Gherkin, icons, respectively, of the British Empire and of London’s transformation into a global finance capital. They are reminders to the reader, if not Natalie, of the centuries of capitalist accumulation that once funded and have now defunded the welfare state. An auxiliary form of the root canal, the disrupted panorama mediates the determinacies and contingencies of global inequality. It also establishes scale’s role in constructing the totalities that we observe. Smith uses it to slow down the sense-making process as the “cross-hatched” whole aggregates objects into scenes and disaggregates scenes into objects. Producing coherence and incoherence rather than simply capturing them, Natalie’s impeded view conveys the obscurity of London’s totality as a global city (“It was impossible to get any sense of the whole”) and the illumination of Caldwell’s totality as a relic of a dismantled welfare state (“The tower blocks were the only thing . . . that made any sense”).

For Smith, totalities are always the by-products of scale, the cognitive and epistemological tool by which individuals measure and comprehend units as meaningful wholes. Her rendering of them is reminiscent of an epigram from T. J. G. Locher from which Wallerstein took inspiration in his early formulation of the world-system as his decisive unit of analysis: “One should not confuse totality with completeness. The whole is more than the assembled parts, but it is surely also less.”[15] Totality as an agent of both fuller and lesser comprehension is what Smith ponders throughout her North West London fictions, but with decidedly more discomfort than Locher or Wallerstein. Unlike Wallerstein, who in his first major articulation of the term, deemed the world-system the “correct unit of analysis,” Smith is concerned with reopening the debate over what counts as a proper unit of analysis and how scalable or strongly explanatory its theorizing should be (Modern World-System I, 7). This is because Smith is interested in the people caught up in systems and in the non-trivial impact that the trivia of place has over how we understand capitalism’s aspirations to transform those places into markets. Her decision to focalize these matters through a postal zone (NW) prevents readers from naively defending locality and emplacement as immune to abstraction and intrinsically resistant to global capitalism. Instead, we are invited to regard locality as a product of state interventions that could and should check the power of the market.

The interplay of the scalable and non-scalable in Smith’s chimeric forms does not undo the opposition between weak theories of interference and strong theories of causality. It brings them into conversation and indeed conflict. Smith’s fictions offer multifactorial accounts of causality without flattening out the differential responsibilities of particular agents. At the same time, the bottom line still matters. Smith understands that demanding accountability for growing global inequality might be best achieved by privileging one unit of analysis over another (the tendential wholeness of the world-system over the tendential partiality of the postal zone, the city, or the nation-state). However, discerning the complexities within elaborate chains of causality demands not just choosing the right unit of analysis but assessing a theory’s principles of expansion alongside its occlusions of vision. In other words, system and totality solve only part of the problem of geopolitical analysis. Root canals and scalability bring us closer to the whole.


[1] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 38. Tsing is critical of this tendency in the sciences.

[2] Paul Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 41.

[3] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernism: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 69–70. Emphasis in original.

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

[5] Mark Wollaeger, “The Global/Comparative Turn in Modernist Studies: Two Points Bearing on Praxis,” English Language Notes 49, no. 1 (2011): 153–56, 156. Emphasis in original.

[6] Pamela Caughie, introduction to Disciplining Modernism, ed. Pamela Caughie (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 9.

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

[8] As Tsing writes, contemporary capitalist industries (her example is Walmart) strive for scalability on the consumption side while permitting nonscalability on the labor side. The effect is a decentralizing of production and less oversight over labor activity combined with an intensified standardization and cheapening of products for retail sale; see The Mushroom at the End of the World, 64.

[9] David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi, introduction to Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture, ed. David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[10] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Random House, 1988), 382.

[11] Aarthi Vadde, Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism Beyond Europe, 1914–2016 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[12] See Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).

[13] Nicholas Dames, “Trollope’s Chapters,” Literature Compass 7, no. 9 (2010): 855–60, 857.

[14] Zadie Smith, NW (New York: Penguin, 2012), 6.

[15] T. J. G. Locher, quoted in Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974), 8.