This article is part of a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Over the next few months, contributors to the forum will introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more.
The relationship between human beings and their environment is one of the key problematics explored in twentieth-century literature. As modernist studies has turned its attention to contexts beyond Britain, Europe and the United States, so questions around space, place and geography have been necessarily reconfigured to take account of the effects of imperialism and globalization, and to destabilize the Anglo- and Eurocentrism of prevailing critical perspectives on space within modernist writing. Roughly concomitant with the development of these geomodernist approaches, significant advances have been made within the field of spatial humanities by scholars who have sought ways to use powerful GIS software in pursuit of research questions specific to the humanities. Some of the most interesting research in this area has sought to directly confront the difficulties of using software that requires quantitative input to account for the complexities of spatial imaginaries, understood here as an imbricating set of discursive constructs concerned with the elaboration of spatial meanings. While such discursive constructs can sometimes be anchored to locations in the material world with specific latitude and longitude coordinates, they are more likely to occupy an ambiguous position in relation to the exigencies of georeferencing, or even to float entirely free from such constraints. Unravelling the workings of spatial imaginaries within a corpus that combines both georeferenceable and non-georeferenceable entities thus engages one of the core debates animating work in the digital humanities: using technologies that often mandate binary distinctions and discrete categories to represent and interrogate a world of non-binary human experiences.
This essay cluster begins with an ending. Specifically, it began with the ending of Patrick Collier’s “What Is Modern Periodical Studies?,” which concludes with a provocation to find a new way to read and study modern periodicals. In order to develop coherent methodological approaches to modern periodicals, Collier argues, we need to resist the urge to “decid[e] in advance where [a] periodical’s value lies.” Instead, he urges us to “start with only one assumption: that the periodical is valuable simply because it exists—because it once performed some desirable functions for some number of people—and set as our first conceptual task reaching some hypotheses on what those functions were.” The seeming simplicity of this provocation—read without having deciding the value of what you’re reading in advance—belies its theoretical and methodological complexity. If modern periodicals are best known for the sheer size and heterogeneity of their archives, then an approach that provides no framing in advance, no specific path for navigating that archival scope, is daunting to say the least.
Are digital methods weak or strong? How should we understand the conjunction of digital tools and methods with modernist studies? In some accounts of the rise of weak theories in literary studies, weak theory and digital methods like distant reading are taken as correlative terms, with associative logic and epistemological modesty common to both. Yet a nearly opposite set of arguments is as familiar: digital literary methods are too “strong,” so goes the claim, because they conceal naïvely positivist notions of evidence and proof, reductively quantify cultural production, or advance a neoliberal agenda within the academy. Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.
Modernism has an image problem.
For the most part, the modernists themselves are to blame. Privately, they grumbled about “the inconceivable stupidity of the common reader.” Publicly, they promised to make “no compromise with the public taste.” Many prominent modernists, at points in their lives, were loudly elitist, racist, classist, sexist, imperialistic, and militaristic (let’s call it ERCSIM, pronounced “irksome”).
But modernist scholars are to blame as well.
Today, even as access to digital reproductions (transcriptions, images, recordings) and datasets (text files, TEI files, and various forms of metadata) makes it possible to forge new connections among agents, works, genres, and media, the figure of the individual author continues to delimit the way that modernist literature is edited, reproduced, and studied. This position paper advocates for the reconstruction and reimagination of non- and para-authorial perspectives on modernist literature through the study of the work of modernism’s literary editors.
In T. S. Eliot’s famous model for artists and their creations delineated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” all the works of art throughout history exist as monuments that “form an ideal order among themselves.” Although this arrangement can be “altered” slightly, Eliot stresses the “conformity between the old and the new” (“Tradition,” 15). Eliot’s conservative canon preserves an existing binary order—authors are major or minor; works are canonical or noncanonical—and leaves little room for major upheaval or disruption. However, most modernist authors saw their projects as less static and more expansive than Eliot’s metaphor would indicate.
Nancy Cunard began printing alone in 1927—in a heat wave no less, as she notes in her posthumously published memoir, These Were the Hours (1969)—and struggled her way through the difficult early stages of learning how to make serviceable prints on an Albion press. She quickly realized, however, that she would need help if the Hours Press were ever to become a successful small publishing house. In 1928, she therefore initiated her well-known collaboration with her lover, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, turning the printing room into a space where, as Jeremy Braddock has recently argued, “Cunard’s advocacy of radical race politics” was often perceived by others as working “in concert with the open publicizing of her own romantic relationships with black men.”
In a charged essay recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia offer a sharp corrective to the utopian claims that have so often been used to describe the digital humanities. Noting the overlap with Silicon Valley’s rhetoric about “disruption,” they contend that digital humanities is about “the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge.” This new field, they conclude, aligns too neatly with a neoliberal view of a higher education that uses the digital to hollow out the core critical, intellectual, social, and even professional practices of the humanities.