An Embarrassment of Lateness

In a 2015 discussion on the state of Ireland’s literature, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, Anne Enright, observed that “since the crash a lot has been disrupted. There’s a resurgent modernism in writers like Eimear McBride and Sarah-Louise Bennett.”[1] In attempting to answer the first question we should always ask of contemporary writing—why does this author write the way she does?—Enright connected the economic restructuring imposed upon Ireland by the EU in 2010 to a widely noticed shift in the texture of Irish fiction. The transformations of the relationships between capital, state, and citizen that resulted from the quaintly termed “Economic Adjustment Programme for Ireland”—what gets rather too loosely described as neoliberalism—are hardly unique to Ireland, and few would disagree they are one of the distinguishing experiences of our time. However, in seeking to describe what is new about Irish writing since the crash, Enright compares it to something old: modernism. While McBride has accepted her “continuity” with a “European” tradition of “diaspora” modernist writing, Bennett has rejected Enright’s description of her work as a kind of modernism, preferring instead to characterize it as writing which tries to avoid “falling into a shape that already exists”: “The term ‘new modernism’ is meaningless, but we are always looking for parity it seems, rather than being alert to what is distinct and fertile.”[2] Bennett shows a prickly and refreshing frustration with critics who assimilate unexpected appearances of what has never existed before to the comforting familiarity of the modernism that has, and she pinpoints how the “new” acts as a homogenizing force when applied to the evaluation of culture. This, of course, was Baudelaire’s point at modernism’s primal scene in 1860s Paris, and it was intended as a damning one.

Indifferent and Detached: Modernism and the Aesthetic Affect

About halfway through Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the protagonist, Adam Gordon, declares that he has “achieved a new emotional state, or a state in which emotions no longer obtained.”[1] In this state, he reports, “I now felt nothing, my affect a flat spectrum over a defined band.” At the same time, he comes to experience a sort of meta-affect, “a kind of euphoria at my sudden inability to feel” (Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, 103). Immediately, Adam finds, he is a better poet. In this state of indifference, he feels, “for the first time, like a writer, as if all the real living were on the page” (104). He can at last imagine becoming the poet he wanted to be, the poet he thought would most impress the women to whom he was now so indifferent, “a poet who alone was able to array the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it” (104). He buys new notebooks to accommodate his poetic outpouring and feels a sudden invigorating certainty in his aesthetic vocation.

Modernism’s Contemporary Affects

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.”[1] 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.[2]  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