It’s election day in the United States. So, of course, I’m thinking about modernism.
There’s a recent feminist slogan that, no matter how staunch my feminist allegiance, always troubles me. You’ve no doubt seen it in one form or another: the ubiquitous “This is what a feminist looks like” emblazoned on posters, memes, and fashion apparel such as t-shirts, onesies, and, heaven help us, even aprons! I believe I understand the laudable intention underlying this message: to demonstrate visually that feminists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, classes, genders, and orientations, and to help reclaim and destigmatize the term feminist after decades of conservative backlash. Nevertheless, I cannot escape the many unsettling questions the slogan raises for me:
Why the emphasis on image and appearance? What does it matter what a feminist looks like? Isn’t it a person’s actions that makes them a feminist? Wouldn't a better slogan communicate what a feminist believes in and stands for, the changes a feminist demands and is prepared to agitate for? And why the stress on the singular feminist? What about feminists as a collective?
In their book Commonwealth from 2009, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri look forward to a commonwealth of the future, a true democracy of the multitude; reconceptualized forms of sociality and conviviality; a new culture and new modes of life, whose realization will require nothing less than “anthropological transformation.” While this new democracy is yet to come, for Hardt and Negri it has antecedents in a partially submerged history of altermodernity: a critical tradition in political modernism that proposes different alternatives to capitalist modernity while attempting to circumvent the negative dialectic of modernity/antimodernity.
Focus on modernist institutions requires attention to modernist institutionalism as well. Whereas focus on the former involves the ways in which literary and cultural developments are conditioned and made possible by publishers, publications, organizations, and governments, focus on the latter emphasizes the forms of justification and modes of habituation that result in the shape and functioning of such institutions.
When the cold January turned to an even colder February, I would have loved nothing more than to begin teaching Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward as part of my class on twentieth-century utopian literature. But instead of going to class, I put on my wool socks, three layers of clothes, a winter coat, and snow boots to spend hours standing in the frigid Midwestern climes outside the main entrance of my university, sign in my hands, equal parts exasperation and anxiety in my heart. My colleagues and I were one week into what would end up being the longest faculty strike in the state of Ohio and the second-longest in the history of public higher education in the United States. As I prepared for the chill air and tear-inducing winds, I registered the ironic contrast between the day that was meant to be and the day that was. It turned out that the very question that had led me to formulate the utopian literature class—what possible value utopias can offer us in these troubled, uncertain, undoubtedly dystopian times—had become even more starkly personal than I could have ever imagined. Standing in the cold I recognized that if modernist utopian literature meant to push us towards radical changes that could counter an increasingly broken society, this current strike was going to force us to recognize what those changes might be. What, in fact, are our aspirational politics in higher education in these times and how, practically, do our actions push that agenda forward.
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
—Oxford Union Debate, December 3, 1964
This motion was adapted from Barry Goldwater’s speech at the Republican National Convention on July 16, 1964, in which he accepted the party’s presidential nomination. One month after Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over the firebrand conservative, the motion was debated in an altogether different though no less performative context. Amongst those speaking for the motion at the Oxford Union were two unlikely bedfellows: the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, an avant-gardist in the cultural sphere and vanguardist in the political, outspoken Scottish nationalist, and professed communist ideologue, and the political activist and cultural icon, Malcolm X, former Nation of Islam minister, revolutionary black nationalist, and, increasingly during this period, anti-colonial internationalist.
Betty Miller opens her 1946 “Notes for an Unwritten Autobiography” provocatively, branding herself a “Fifth Columnist” who had at one time worked to undermine her country from within. Rather than any clandestine operation that she participated in as an adult, however, Miller’s stint as a “Fifth Columnist” occurred when she was just a child. While a young girl in a nursery in Ireland, Miller increasingly became captivated by the image of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although Miller understood that the Kaiser must be “the most wicked man on earth,” she nevertheless felt a combination of powerful fascination and pity because he was so seemingly friendless and ostracized.
As a scholar of early-twentieth-century literature, I have not found it necessary to address contemporary political issues in my work. However, the election of Donald Trump has forced me to change my thoughts about writing in general and more specifically, about publishing on modernist women writers. In the present academic climate, many who read and teach in the perpetually unpopular field of women writers also contend with heavy teaching loads, difficult family commitments and/or precarious employment.
“My new book is a Utopia in the form of a novel”—this is how George Orwell characterized Nineteen Eighty-Four in a letter to a friend on 4 February 1949. As its reception history abundantly documents, it turned out to be an interpretive challenge to read the novel as a utopia.