Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Scale and Form; or, What was Global Modernism?

While the jargon overflows with the pretense of deep human emotion, it is just as standardized as the world that it officially negates; the reason for this lies partly in its mass success, partly in the fact that it posits its message automatically. . . . The jargon has at its disposal a modest number of words which are received as promptly as signals. “Authenticity” itself is not the most prominent of them. It is more an illumination of the ether in which the jargon flourishes, and the way of thinking which latently feeds it.

—Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity[1]

A New Authenticity?

Transnational, geopolitical, cosmopolitan, planetary: the language of the global turn in modernist studies is now instantly recognizable to the field’s professional and aspiring practitioners. This new lexicon percolates across journals, conferences, monographs, and other sites of consecrated disciplinary activity, and represents what Aarthi Vadde, in her contribution to this cluster, refers to as global modernism’s “definitional proliferation.” Like any other expansion of specialized terms, the language game of global modernism takes the form of scholarly disagreement: it generates affiliation and disaffiliation at the levels of panel and plenary, article and book. Yet arguments among partisans of this term or that one paper over an implicit consensus about the coherence and importance of its central concept, modernism, an agreement that (in Adorno’s words cited above) “illuminates the ether in which the jargon flourishes.”

In this case, the new modernist lexicon confirms at least three principles: (1) that “modernism,” whatever it may be, is best understood as a maximal rather than restricted phenomenon; (2) that it uniquely addresses the conflicts of “modernity” across space and time; (3) that it is hybrid and multivalent rather than monolithic or singular. If this is true, then the storeroom of approved terms for talking globally marks, too, that a once insurgent and novel set of approaches—pluralized, plastic, diversified, and arrayed against an older, urn-burnishing fetishism for white male experiment—has itself become dominant. The widening selection of crib guides, encyclopedias, and keywords volumes for global and new modernist studies itself testifies to the institutional maturation of those once-insurgent approaches. We have passed from the moment of the manifesto to the rather less boisterous moment of the handbook.

One way to understand this expansion of keywords for global modernist study is, then, as success. As Tim Wientzen notes in this cluster, the fact that the set of terms for this new capaciousness continues to spin outward helps underscore the field’s drive “to expand the temporal and spatial horizons of literary analysis.” Certainly our new idioms testify to the fact that the field’s geographic reach now pushes well beyond familiar circuits of Anglo-American prestige, opening onto non-western archives and forms of experience never dreamed of in the days when assigning even Virginia Woolf was an act of transgression. Yet however nobly intended, any set of practices, concepts, or presumptions about method, if they are to escape the processes of intellectual capture Adorno outlines above, must resist crystallization into slogans and fight the tendency to settle into “signals”: placeholders for thought rather than thought itself, professional protocols rather than conceptual antagonisms, the shadows of globalized modernism rather than globalized modernism itself.

This cluster derives from the conviction that the fluctuations of critical scale advertised under the banner of global modernism now challenge us to revisit older tensions between world and text, general and particular, rule and example, and to do so in ways that critique rather than reaffirm existing lexicons for undertaking that work. What are the scales, and what are the forms, of a genuinely global reading practice? Certain forms of so-called distant reading have responded to related methodological challenges by forgoing particular units of analysis in favor of vast ones like database and set. Sociological analyses, meanwhile, by definition examine social aggregates and patterns of regularity rather than the idiosyncratic singularities that disrupt them. This forum takes a different angle. It asks how a renovated modernist studies might coordinate macro-level analyses of the world-as-system—the maximalist model—with particularized attention to individual cultural objects or moments within them: reading at what we might call minimal scales.[2]

How, and by what conceptual justification, might we read closely under the sign of global modernism? Can we widen our analyses to the largest scale while keeping faith with the particular? To address these questions is to dwell in the challenge of plotting often singular or resistant cultural performances within a politically and economically interdependent—that is, apparently determining—world system. The scholars convened here arrive from multiple phases of career, differing institutional settings, and diverse national archives. Yet they join together in asking (1) how world-scaled analysis might generate fresh economic and geopolitical questions for the so-called global turn in modernist studies; and (2) how even while pursuing such macro-level analyses, we might draw evidentiary claims, still, from the bristling and idiosyncratic shape of singular artworks. The disagreement among these approaches is by design: we take this dissensus to index both the commitment of these critics and the stakes of the problems they convene here to engage.

Parts and Whole

There are any number of pathways through the essays of this cluster, any number of ways by which their collective debate might be navigated and, in that navigation, redescribed, revised, reframed, and contested. We welcome such engagement and have selected this online format to encourage it. By way of setting into motion that dialectical process, we chart here only several of the multiple throughlines structuring these arguments, which we collate under the headings expansions, contractions, and middle ranges.

Expansions. A longstanding criticism of global modernism is that the turn to wider geographies and multiplying literary traditions slides easily, even necessarily, into intellectual colonization: all literary activity, from anywhere or anytime might conceivably be subsumed under the sign of modernism. By this argument cultural and linguistic particularity, aesthetic singularity, and the uneven textures of lived history risk falling from sight as new writers and texts are folded into an enlarged, but scarcely changed template called “global modernism.” Ever-new examples can be punched into the equation, yet more raw material fed into the furnace. Bashir Abu-Manneh and Aarthi Vadde’s contributions invite us to think through this problem of capture from different angles. Abu-Manneh argues provocatively that one consequence of the field’s expansive turn is that the honorific power of the term “modernism,” and the worshipful tone in which its most salient formal effects continue to be described, tends to obscure innovations in realism that might more adequately mediate transformations in the global capitalist economy. Vadde fine-tunes this provocation by distinguishing between expansion and scalability, where expansion means simply getting larger and scalability refers to the ability for a framework, method, or form to enlarge without requiring fundamental change. Expansion has so fractured and multiplied “modernism,” she explains, that there is no longer a strong or scalable definition of modernism to position against other cultural phenomena (like “realism,” say). And a weakly contoured modernism is, in her words, “a good thing.”

Contractions. Even in the midst of these expansive movements it remains to be determined how even the most carefully maximalizing methods might resist the impulse toward hypostasization. Can our methods remain alive to the dangers of abstraction—even refusing or short-circuiting those dangers—while construing “modernism” as expansive, flexible, and unmoored from its North American and European locales? And if expansion, flexibility, and unmooring are also the salient traits of an effectively neocolonial global capitalism, what intellectual tools might craft alternative logics to those that have underwritten and emerged from—and mirror, on the level of method—capitalism’s drive toward this liquid modernity? Such questions drive Neferti Tadiar’s contribution, which proposes that we look for experimental modes and innovative forms not in authorized culture but in “the waste products and blind spots” of historical processes and critical method alike. Focusing on Lyra Garcellano’s 2014 installation, Sweep, whose scalar distensions and evocative blanknesses model the theoretical productivity Tadiar ascribes to all cultural products, including criticism, she asks: what forms of thought are modeled by the world’s forgotten objects and abandoned human beings? And, more pressingly, can we bring ourselves to listen? Laura Doyle and Christopher GoGwilt concur with Tadiar that the injunction to think globally paradoxically intensifies our responsibility to the particular. For Doyle, an ever-expanding modernism has renewed, not diminished, a form of close reading that takes as its starting point the dynamic interplay between part and whole. Using readings that slide between individual text and global system, Doyle finds the longer-durational histories embedded within modernist works. This inter-imperial method shuttles us back toward histories prior to European hegemony that “bear down powerfully—as dream and nightmare” on the imaginations of writers as different as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Arundhati Roy, and Alejo Carpentier. From this particularizing model, GoGwilt’s contribution pivots to ask whether close reading alone is enough to excavate the accumulations of colonial history embedded within the forms and languages of literary texts. “Nearly reading” becomes a form of attention able to detect the signals and pressures of history that have always been there but have been missed even by the most attentive close readers, exposing anew “what has yet to be seen, but has already been lost to view.” But as GoGwilt demonstrates, the objects of our ever-growing fields of study scale down into individual acts of thinking in their own rights, even as they model, as structure and formal effect, more general forms of conceptualization.

Middle-ranges. Essays by Timothy Wientzen and Nicole Rizzuto likewise linger over what we might call the thinking-power of individual works, but move beyond single exemplars to consider forms of middle range between the imperially totalizing and the recalcitrant, heroic particular. Instead they imagine forms of entangled expression, outside the false binary of capture and escape. One way they do this is to direct us to the middle ground of genre itself: to science fiction and the maritime novel, respectively, where any individual utterance already bears within itself the imprint of the forms that precede it and give it life. Drawing on early works of science fiction like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) and Karel Čapek’s The War with the Newts (1936), Wientzen shows how those novels address the planetary consequences and geological timescales into which “the epochal event of modernity” is necessarily emplotted. For Wientzen, this recasting of modernity in geophysical terms reframes what is still taken as a primarily political or aesthetic period-concept (“modernism”) as a phase in the almost impossibly extended history of a planet—and adds, implicitly, yet another timescale, that of genre itself. Rizzuto likewise tracks the “intersections among planetary environmental and global economic forces” and, like Wientzen, opens up a way to construe geophysical forms in dialogue with human systems both political and aesthetic. For Rizzuto, Richard Hughes’s 1938 maritime novel In Hazard performs a kind double motion, “disrupt[ing] its own systems of representation and narration” to become a tiny model of a dynamic rather than static textual system. What Rizzuto discloses is how the joined pressures of environmental and legal modernity wreak havoc on the orderly self-representation of European reason, disrupting the conventions of genre to produce formal effects that for lack of a better term we might call modernist.

The Ethers of Modernism

What all these essays have in common is a willingness to reconfigure approved methods and to derive ethical and political coordinates from encounters with textual objects. Each contribution speculates widely but links those peregrinations to the internal textures of artworks themselves, in all their difficulty and self-contradiction. What this procedure puts into relief, we believe, as though by a kind of photonegative process, is that recent and ongoing efforts to canonize a critical language for a once-new modernist studies can only ever remain inadequate to their own objects. Those singular works—always in motion, always putting us at risk, always scaling up and scaling down—exceed by their very design the reifying effects of methodological commonsense, whether old or new, ours or someone else’s.

In varying ways, then, these essays demonstrate how close readings of objects or sections of them might find ways to open onto systemic problems and contest the ways we construe globe, world, or planet; they address questions of scale within and across various geographical or geopolitical zones; consider how these problems of method shift across the multiple phases of modernist production, however loosely defined; and take seriously the capacity of aesthetic texts themselves to perform acts of methodological world-making. If the new alphabets for global modernist study freeze into stasis the operations of thinking that should always be in motion, these essays aim to thaw us back into agility. One valence of “form,” as we frame it here, is critical, in the sense of working aslant from approved practice. Together these essays dare us to displace, ignore, or reveal as symptomatic our now-consolidated vocabularies for undertaking thought, and to direct the solidarity of our acts of reading with the cast-off and emergent against the comfortable and the dominant.

If that is true, then it follows that we might charge ourselves with the task not just of turning a dialectical gaze upon our own methods—including those deployed in this introduction. We must also seek out residual and soon-to-be-emergent practices, pockets of methodological and conceptual potentiality overrun by present tastes or abandoned by them, but whose possibilities might yet be set into motion now. What would happen if, rather than plugging more texts and archives into the new modernist orthodoxy, we reactivated critical languages deemed by that consensus to be residual, surpassed? Or worse: disavowed, refused, and expunged? As several of our contributors propose, a return to the archive of global thought might do worse than to follow to its very frayed edges what Karl Marx in 1867 already called “the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market.”[3] From that worldwide system of enmeshing and extrojection emerges a vision of planetarity that is at once generative and suffocating, intimately connected and increasingly unlivable.

At the margins of this world are the human beings who inhabit spaces of capitalist plunder and strife like the rural Rhodesian farms of Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (1950); the “native town,” in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961); or the oilfield shantytowns in Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984).[4] There, the encamped laborers sit and wait and “bea[r] up under the pain”: they are effective prisoners of a vast, petroimperialist infrastructure whose traces they detect in the very weather of their lives, as the etherized coordinates of the system that blow in, only barely apprehensibly, from “the west”: “The humidity thickened and the heat, carried by winds from the west, oppressed the air with a heavy layer of dust. The people felt they could take it no longer.”[5] As Munif’s fossil energy epic suggests, to recover the language of the Marxian world market now would require new attention to the status of nonhuman nature in our geological moment. That is because now, “all peoples” (in Marx’s words) are, like Munif’s abandoned laborers, entangled not just in anthropogenic systems like the global economy, with its always-proliferating structures of human disposability, but also the fossil fuel infrastructure driving it, the war-state stabilizing it—and also the water-cycles, weather systems, subsurface geological formations, and other earth processes on which human regimes of extraction are so disastrously parasitical. All of these interlocked systems generate what Munif elegantly names “oppressed air,” and form the only intermittently noted backdrop, now, for what Adorno, writing in 1964 about his own era’s suffocating orthodoxy, offhandedly referred to as jargon’s “ether.” We propose paying less attention to the jargon and more to the ether. Others will have other programs. What the present demands, in any case, is commitment and argumentation. Into the drawing room of contemporary modernist studies, thick with the air of consensus, could we welcome dialectical antagonism, open contestation, new models, remaindered objects and the diverse worlds they call into being? And if such guests could ever be invited over the threshold, could the results of that encounter be called by an older, even forgotten name, “the political”?


[1] Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 6.

[2] Roland Barthes opens that great exemplar of micro-scaled analysis, S/Z, by recounting the legend of “certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean” (S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Millar [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974], 3). By placing his own practice under this faintly orientalist sign, Barthes casts his method in opposition to (what he implicitly styles as) westernized, Enlightenment-fueled regimes of reading-for-content and reading-as-paraphrase. We follow that gesture here.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1992), 929.

[4] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (1961; rpt., New York: Grove Press, 1966), 39.

[5] Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt, trans. Peter Theroux (1984; rpt., New York: Vintage, 1989), 197.