theory

Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part II

Several of this latest batch of responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory engage not only the original issue, but also the first set of responses that we ran last month—and we plan on  keeping this conversation going. Would you like to be part of it?

The Weak Powers of Digital Modernist Studies

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.[1] 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.[2] Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.

Weak Theory, Weak Modernism

Weakness: not a word that would seem, at first blush, to have anything to say to modernism.  Modernism doesn’t blush; it blasts. Its reputation is for strength in extremis—for steep critiques of modernity, energetic convention busting, the breaking of vessels. In the words of its early theorists, modernism is “rebellion against authority,” a “revolution of the word,” “kicking over old walls” and “breaking of ‘Do Nots.’”[1] Nothing small-bore about revolt, nothing weak about making it new. Surely weakness is modernism’s obverse—injured, low-energy, and acquiescent—all the cloying orthodoxy that modernism would shock its way out of. Modernism is the production of aesthetic strength through iconoclasm and strenuous innovation. It is strong people exhibiting strength.