If ambiguity is the bread and butter of academia, discomfort is probably its toaster, by which I mean that our profession loves and relies on discomfort. In the classroom, and even in reading, we take this discomfort to be productive, even therapeutic; we see it as an invitation to find in the text a space that will alleviate the feeling, or to make that space in the discourse that surrounds it. Transforming discomfort into opportunity—even producing discomfort for said purpose—is a trope so common in teaching narratives that it sometimes feels like a generic marker. Yet as the stories of #MeToo multiply, I’m beginning to question the function and fungibility of that feeling.
I chose the keyword No because it has long been a cornerstone of discourse surrounding sexual consent, and because it both subtly and directly highlights the difficulty of reading “The Waste Land” at a moment when sexual consent is at the forefront of our minds. Well before the current iteration of the #MeToo movement, the phrase “No means no” has been wielded as a battle cry and passed along as an educational tool for persons of all genders, either to learn how to articulate their rights or to learn how to recognize the articulations of others. It has even been used as a rejoinder in casual conversation. Situated at the uneasy intersection of the sloganeering associated with late capitalistic commerce (merchandise with the phrase is ubiquitous) and the tireless efforts of feminist discourse to popularize the apparently elusive concept of mutually consensual sexual activity, the phrase’s simplicity is both ironclad and generative. No means no: the word’s repetition signals a firm equation grounded in literal, syntactical fact. At the same time, efforts have been made to define “no” in a range of ways that extend beyond the literal and sometimes even, properly, the syntactical, to gestures, silences, hesitations, impairments, and more. The goal of the phrase is—to a politically beneficial end—to establish both a singular meaning and an expansive plurality of significations: no always means no, and no can be implied by a battalion of forms of rhetoric at various intersections of the linguistic and the embodied
Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker describes a spate of current essays by men disgraced by #MeToo, essays that speak of what these men have lost personally and professionally and their quest for redemption, as bearing “the gravitational pull of male power . . . exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”
Those of us who study modernism have also been, perhaps, trained to linger on the hero’s journey of men. The contours of the field early on, indeed, were shaped by such hero’s journeys. Paul Saint-Amour, in the introduction to the special issue of Modernism/modernity on “weak theory,” casts these contours as explicitly masculinist, writing that we have “equated” modernism with “warrior masculinity” and that the “heroic ‘men of 1914’ script likely compounded baseline cultural and institutional prejudices in effacing” women writers and others. Recovery work has raised up silenced or unheard voices, even as the value placed on those voices and that work by the structures of prestige and power that define academia is sometimes measured in coffeespoons. Rai Peterson, in arguing that we should attend to how women modernists like Nancy Cunard and Hope Mirrlees speak back to T. S. Eliot, has pointed out that “[r]eaders . . . [still] believe that Eliot’s work speaks definitively for its age.” It matters who gets to speak and who does not, and for whom, and how we hear what they say. In engaging the topic of this roundtable, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who has devoted her career to undergraduate teaching, and who has thought a lot about feminist pedagogy and gender and sexuality in the classroom and in academe. In reading “The Waste Land” in the context of #MeToo, what space might students as well as emerging critics find for their own voices? Can they speak back to certain voices—and thus ways of reading—that dominate? Or are those voices—and ways of reading—silencing in their very volume?
I did it again.
To encounter black modernity via W. E. B. Du Bois is to tangle with questions of exemplarity and exceptionality. For my students in a large lecture class on the “American Experience,” many of whom are the first in their family to receive a college degree, many of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants, Booker T. Washington’s message of casting one’s bucket down can resonate more strongly than what they sometimes read as the elitism of Du Bois’s talented tenth. As a member of that tenth, Du Bois does not always speak to them—yeah, well, that guy went to Harvard, but that’s not most people; that’s not me.
The literary object is in flux. No longer are scholars so tightly bound to the poem, story, book, oeuvre, canon, or national literature. Yet from the undergraduate survey to the graduate seminar, most teaching stubbornly clings to these traditional objects.
The narrator of Joyce’s “Ithaca” renders Molly Bloom’s experience of “direct instruction” (Ulysses, 562). From the perspective of her teacher, who is interested in outcomes, this experience is not a success. Molly’s insouciance and inconsistency, as recorded in the sentence above, lead the self-appointed pedagogue Leopold Bloom to adopt a “more effective” and modern approach: “[i]ndirect suggestion implicating selfinterest” (563). Joyce’s language suggests here, however, that the “direct” method proves surprisingly enabling—more so, in fact, than the updated, “implicating” alternative. The latter leads, in “Ithaca,” to an ultimately straightforward if initially perplexing consumer equation: “She disliked umbrella with rain, he liked woman with umbrella, she disliked new hat with rain, he liked woman with new hat, he bought new hat with rain, she carried umbrella with new hat” (563). Note the relative predictability of the sentence, its directness, even, “indirect suggestion” notwithstanding. It’s as if “indirect suggestion implicating self-interest” could yield only this parade of pros, cons, and commodities, this regular succession of dislikes and likes.
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.
We modernist scholars are all digital modernists now, and for a variety of reasons. Listening to recent debates in both modernist studies and the digital humanities, one would not think this was the case. Digital scholarship is often presented as the preserve of a special inter- or infra-disciplinary conversation distinct from the professional fields that contribute to it, thus presenting digital scholarship as a set of methods distinct and particular to digital humanists.
If I were Edna St. Vincent Millay, I might begin this letter by describing some bit of local foliage I’d enclosed, its leaves pressed among scrawled endearments. But by the time broadband has advanced enough to transmit an actual crape myrtle blossom, it would be very faded, I’m afraid. So a photograph from my front yard will have to suffice.