“Orientations”: A Provocation, A Welcome, An Invitation
Volume 6, Cycle 3
When I was in the process of proposing and developing the volume that became Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English, one of my peer reviewers noted an orientation towards the celebratory, a somewhat uncritical extolling of the vibrancy of modernist women’s writing. I had found such vibrancy in communities of modernist scholars as I was working on the volume, roundtables and seminars at the annual MSA conference, including one convened in honor of Jane Marcus shortly after her death. The sense of belonging I found in those communities, and the sense of what I owed fellow scholars, my “ideal audience,” and potential users of the book, set the tenor of my writing.
My reviewers compelled me to engage with the “debates” in modernist studies, discoursing on “conflicts,” “contradictions,” and “antagonisms.” After all, we “teach the conflicts,” right? And a surge of important and field-redefining work at that time—the starting up of Feminist Modernist Studies in 2018; Urmila Seshagiri’s 2017 cluster “Mind the Gap! Modernism and Feminist Praxis,” with the oft-quoted line “Any account of modernism is also an account of women’s art and women’s lives”; and Anne Fernald’s 2013 special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, “Women’s Fiction, New Modernist Studies, and Feminism”—all made clear that the theory and practice of feminist scholarship of modernist women’s cultural production is multivalent and heterogenous. Minding the gap did not mean papering over difference.
Speaking of minding, I did not, then, mind revising along the lines of the reviewer’s comments, drawing the lines of debate more clearly. But looking back on the volume, its lines and its gaps, and looking back on what I thought I was doing while it was a work in progress, I have some problems. I’ve written about some of them already in this space. In privileging, “celebrating,” a certain experience of modernist feminist community, I didn’t think about who would be marginalized or excluded from that community. I didn’t grapple with how certain forms of feminist modernist studies center some writers rather than others, still often the same handful appearing on syllabi. I approached with optimism the place of feminism in modernist studies and its capacity for effecting disciplinary, institutional, and professional change. And I recapitulated untroubledly those straight lines of debate.
In beginning with this background, I take a cue from Sara Ahmed and the inspiration for the title of this new Print Plus forum, “Orientations,” a space dedicated to queer and feminist modernist studies. In “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology,” Ahmed suggests that “one’s background affects what it is that comes into view” (547). I come to the work of curating this forum as a feminist teacher-scholar and editor. What does such a person with a commitment to radical openness and feminist practice want with and from a space like “Orientations”? What does a space that privileges feminist and queer modernisms make possible on a platform such as this that has not been previously possible? I invite prospective contributors to join me in finding out, in the collaborative work of shaping this space.
“Orientations” will be a space for reorienting ourselves as scholars, teachers, writers, and practitioners of interdisciplinary modernist studies to the feminist, to the queer—and will also be a space for sustained orientation to feminist and queer modernisms. In the spirit of Ahmed’s “orientations,” pieces might explore how we got here, the historicity of modernism’s attention, or lack thereof, to the queer, to the feminist. Pieces might explore where we are going, in terms of methodology, practice, theory. The pedagogical, the theoretical, the practical, the activist—all are encouraged, as are works in progress and working in public.
As Ahmed argues that our orientations are processural (564), “Orientations” itself will be a work in progress, making a space for working in public. Posts might be provocations; they might be incomplete and inconclusive. They might be irresolute. And “Orientations” will reveal a field in process, one still grappling with the “multivalent possibilities for feminist”—and queer—“intellectual practice,” to slightly adapt Seshagiri’s words from “Mind the Gap!” A feminist queer modernist studies “disturb[s] the order of things” (Ahmed 565). “Orientations” seeks to disorient even as it reorients.
“Orientations” will queer rather than straighten, will foreground the gaps, rather than relegate them to the background. Ahmed argues that “straightness” is a path tamped down by endless bodies trodding the same line (554–555). Recapitulating heteronormative, transphobic, masculinist, misogynist, and patriarchal hegemonies in modernist studies has led on occasion to the feeling that this is what modernist studies is, a state which prompted Paul Saint-Amour’s intervention into “weak” modernism (see also Ahmed 563, particularly in her citation of Gill Valentine). I think back, as Saint-Amour does in his introductory essay to the much-discussed Modernism/modernity special issue “Weak Theory,” to Michael Levenson’s 1984 A Genealogy of Modernism, which in its plotting out of a “bright line,” in Saint-Amour’s words, imagines modernism as straightness. That path has continued to be trodden.
We deviate. “Orientations” will orient us towards the feminist, the queer, and in doing so, open up, create, new domains in modernist studies. I am envisioning that opening up as praxis in the writing and editing, as well. I will orient myself, as editor, in this space towards openness, collaboration, dialogue, and I will call upon contributors to do so as well.
In the coming months, readers of “Orientations” can look forward to pieces on intersectional feminism and precarity in the profession of modernist studies; the theory, ethics, and practice of feminist and queer archives; and more in development. Readers who see gaps are encouraged to mind them, and get in touch.
 Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ 12, no. 4 (2006): 543–74, 547.