The apocalypse stressed me out. This is an obviously true, maybe irresponsibly glib statement in material terms—the sixth extinction, global pandemic, nuclear annihilation, space rocks, methane farts, these all terrify me daily in ways that I have the luxury to be terrified.
There is a striking moment about two-thirds of the way through Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out (2016). While visiting his white girlfriend’s family estate for the weekend, the film’s black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is approached by one of the family’s African-American servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). At this point in the film, the audience is aware that Washington has been uneasy about the visit since before the couple arrived, in large part because his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) had not disclosed his race to her family before their visit. As a black man surrounded by the white family and their mostly white friends, Washington’s discomfort increases despite the reassurances of his girlfriend. In this brief exchange with Georgina, he attempts to find some commonality in his discomfort. Structured as a series of slowly tightening counter-shots between the two characters, the sequence depicts Georgina approaching Chris to explain why she has unplugged his cell phone (repeatedly). When he confesses to her that “When there are too many white people, I get nervous,” Georgina responds with a repeated, “No. No. No.” It’s a phrase intended as comfort, but the moment instead conveys a sense of the uncanny that is, indeed, the key to understanding the film as a whole. It is also a moment deeply indebted to the interwoven histories of acting and media in modernism.
“We have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot?”
– Thomas Pynchon, quoted in Zadie Smith, “Love, Actually”
Modernism’s singular allure for contemporary novelists and critics alike raises a number of questions, problems, and interpretative opportunities. What do these shared attachments reveal about the legacies of modernism today? What feelings does modernism inspire, and what values do those feelings imply? Why do contemporary novels invoke modernist writing with such urgency, and what conceptions of modernism emerge from these engagements? Should we take seriously the idea that contemporary fiction might affect the praxis of modernist criticism?
In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf famously writes, “Chloe liked Olivia,” a line that anticipates, and even directs, feminist literary scholarship through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Woolf’s modernist feminism, in A Room and a range of other literary essays, calls for a female literary lineage as well as histories of the anonymous women whose stories have never been told. How then, after almost a century, has Woolf’s vision fulfilled itself? In what ways has her work reached global and contemporary audiences, and how have these audiences used modernist feminism to talk about their current political and cultural circumstances? How do we begin to construct a female literary canon that is based on the affective responses of one writer to another? The overwhelming international popularity of Elena Ferrante’s metamodern Neapolitan quartet, which includes My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Lost Child (2014), illustrates the affective impact of Woolf’s feminist ideas. Ferrante does in fiction what Woolf calls for in theory as she amplifies the implications of female friendship, matrilineal lineage, women’s anger, and anonymity. Through an appropriation of modernist feminist tendancies, both in content and form, Ferrante explores the psychological and subterranean currents of female consciousness and gives voice to Shakespeare’s sister, the female writer who comes into existence through the work of anonymous women. Ferrante, herself one of those anonymous women, continues the female lineage Woolf argues for. The inner worlds of the women in Ferrante’s realist prose remind us of Woolf’s call to remember the interior lives of women; yet Ferrante’s novels are very much products of post-fascist Italy and 1970s Italian feminism.
A feeling of insecurity has infiltrated daily life in the United States. This general unease clouds the perception of many, preventing them from—or, allowing them to avoid—interrogating the reality of their situation. Important to remember always, but especially today, is that some people have permanent access to safety, while many live perpetually adjacent to or outside of it. As a result, they lack the support that would enable them to act confidently, without fear. For good reason, insecurity has a predominantly negative connotation, yet this feeling also holds positive potential for those who exist in positions of safety. Rather than closing themselves off, restricting interactions with other people and ideas, they can respond by seeking out new experiences and affiliations from which they can reflect back on the zone of safety. From this vantage point, safety’s limitations become easier to recognize and change more accessible.
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.” 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.” 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.
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