How did the novel, which shared most of its history with the rise and consolidation of the modern nation-state, adapt to a new world order scrambled by war, colonialism, and migration?
New. Now. Motion. Speed. Acceleration. Expansion. Pause. Renew. Now, again.
In the early twentieth century, there is no such thing as transnational literary modernism. Yet, in the early twenty-first century, there is transnational modernist studies.
In the introduction to his superb book Realism after Modernism, Devin Fore describes a “shared modernist aspiration to achieve conditions of perception and consciousness outside of what is customarily arrogated to the human.” He sees this as the tie that binds avant-garde movements across early twentieth-century Europe: from José Ortega y Gasset to Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Cezanne to Velimir Khlebnikov, modernism was a radically diverse enterprise with an eye to the aesthetic transcendence of language, figuration, an
My son sits at the desk, knee propped on its edge, keyboard in lap. Nearby, a television bolted to the wall displays a high-definition humanoid, clad in luminous armor inscribed with obscure heraldry, dancing with ecstatic abandon. Were it not odd enough that they are dancing in the lugubrious depths of a biomorphic dreadnaught inhabited by a terrible and hostile alien race intent on destroying the earth and everything upon it, the dance they dance is the “Carlton,” made famous by actor Alfonso Ribeiro on the 1990s sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
What is this thing called modernist studies? And what does it look like when viewed from the—for most—faraway islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand?
Henry Kiyama’s semi-autobiographical bilingual comic strip, The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924 (1931), follows four Japanese student immigrants in the early years of the twentieth century and depicts the hardships they face as they try to settle in California, find employment, and learn to navigate the modern American metropolis. The Manga takes on contemporaneous cultural representations of East Asian immigrants, simultaneously uncovering and giving form to the affective, social, and historical processes that underlie the production of racial stereotypes. At the same time, it traces the author’s artistic development and shows him working assiduously to master traditional Western painterly techniques in order to “create some masterpieces, fusing the best of East and West.” In this way, the comic strip represents and examines its own mode of production, typifying the modernist artwork’s self-conscious reflection on its own conditions of possibility. In setting up the parallel between Henry’s artistic labor and the other characters’ abortive attempts to secure jobs and make profitable investments, Kiyama’s work makes explicit the interdependence of the historically specific forms of aesthetic production at the turn of the century and the form of labor under capitalism. It gives expression to what Stewart Martin characterizes as the “antinomy of autonomous art in capitalist culture,” whereby the modernist work of art “obscures its constitution within commodity culture” by way of its formal abstraction, only to converge with the commodity form by virtue of the exchange-value it accrues, paradoxically, as a work of art.[2
In her 1926 essay “Impassioned Prose,” Virginia Woolf seeks to distinguish herself from her Edwardian predecessors, writing that “they ignore [the mind’s] thoughts, its rhapsodies, its dreams . . . while prose itself . . . will be fit . . . to write nothing but the immortal works of Bradshaw and Baedeker.” Like her fellow modern novelists E. M. Forster and Henry James, like Mina Loy with her Lost Lunar Baedeker or T. S. Eliot with his “Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar,” Woolf mentions the famously popular Baedeker travel guides of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Woolf here seems unconcerned with what the Baedekers and similar guidebooks have to say about changing patterns of tourism and travel, or about how they mediate the relationship between cultures. The content of travel guides—what Roland Barthes sees as the “disease of essence,” the tendency to reduce cultures to “types”—is not the issue for Woolf. Instead, Woolf uses the Baedekers to characterize the language of Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy: a language perfect for the simplest forms of communication, but unsuited to creative expression. The “Bradshaw” to which Woolf refers is probably the Bradshaw railway guide—a textual form reduced to a list of times and city names. Bradshaws and Baedekers impart information, but they don’t express; they don’t, as she says, dream. Woolf defines the modern novel against the travel guide, yet the persistent invocation of guidebooks in fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries points to a deeper connection between them. While the modernist novel and the travel guide both claim to be totalizing genres that can more fully represent the reality of cities or countries, they each confront the limits of that endeavor. Both genres are characterized, I argue, by their selectiveness rather than by their expansiveness. While they attempt synecdochally to construct an encyclopedic portrait of a nation or metropolis, they are faced with the need to choose which people or places or events should be focused on, or, in the words of the Bradshaw, what “objects” are “worthy of attention.”[3
While the supply chains for certain foods, such as spices, tea, or coffee, operated on a global scale for centuries, it was not until the early twentieth century that imported perishable foods, like bananas, became widely available to US consumers of all socio-economic classes. Bananas belong to a class of imported tropical foods that were absorbed into the US diet and foodways during the modernist era, changing from “their” foods to “our” foods in ways that parallel changing attitudes toward tropical countries during the early stages of US expansionism into the Caribbean, Hawaii, and the Philippines. In this regard, bananas are not a unique commodity, but they are quite important in that the history of US and corporate neocolonialism in Latin America is inexorably linked to the banana trade, as numerous studies have pointed out. Attending to the supply chains for these imported foods offers scholars the opportunity to weigh their figurative value against the power dynamics of their production and often reveals surprising connections between disparate places, people, and texts.
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 many ways, the concept of translation has been at the heart of the global modernist project.