Director Rebecca Hall’s recent adaptation of Nella Larsen’s exquisite second novel, Passing (1929), is visually stunning. I had the pleasure of seeing the film on the big screen, during its limited theatrical run and before its Netflix release. It was the ideal atmosphere for absorbing this cinematic rendering of Larsen’s eerie, anxiety-ridden plot: ensconced with a sparse audience (my companion and I comprising two of the four patrons for the 5:10pm showing) in a small independent theater in Manhattan, just a few miles from where the story is set, and with Halloween everywhere looming on this late-October evening.
At the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City––a show attuned to the intense political divisions and racial tensions in the United States today––one artist stood out for her reuse of images of resistance from various moments in the history of modernity, marked by figures such as Marx and Engels, Muhammad Ali, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s Veterans Day (2016), a large oil painting on linen, stages these images in a domestic interior space with yellow wallpaper speckled with flowers and a vintage stereo emanating visual notes that unfurl throughout the room (fig. 1).
A moment in cultural “time,” as Jonathan Lethem has suggested, “is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted,” because the “character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.” In part, Lethem’s statement helps us to explain why we find “the contemporary” at once so critically slippery and yet practically self-evident. Pushing somewhat more explicitly against Lethem’s own grain, we might also say that he reveals how easy it is to take the very character of contemporaneity for granted, since it will always be impossible to pin down—always remain in a state of perpetual “drift,” to borrow Theodor Martin’s keyword from his ambitious attempt to historicize the present. It can be just as reassuring to take for granted the idea of modernism flourishing beyond mid-century, in ways that facilitate conversations about its continuity and about its potential to describe the “character” of eras in which modernist production has hitherto not been located. 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. That modernism today seems more geohistorically widespread and generically mobile is a testament to how scholars are challenging us to apprehend why and where modernist innovations still happen: what they politically and formally mean in different hemispheric contexts; how they depart from Eurochronological frames of artistic influence and advancement; how the very “language and structure of modernism,” in Simon Gikandi’s words, allowed “a postcolonial experience” to become “articulated and imagined in literary form”; and how specific practices of modernism in the present might continue to effect radical change through oppositional modes of cultural production.[3