How should modernists think about the current invasion of Ukraine, and the underlying crisis of liberal order, if at all, and what does that have to do with the crisis in historical thinking and legitimation in literary studies more generally? My initial claim in the following is that what we already teach and write, in this centenary of the modernist Wunderjahr 1922, has everything to do with the sudden re-entry of geopolitics into view in 2022. The modernist masterpieces of 1919–1922 were formed and contested one hundred years ago in the matrix of a crisis of liberal order, a crisis that has now returned with only slightly different names, faces, and justifications. That we cannot quite recall this is not only a gap in our understanding of modernist geopolitics, but also a more fundamental failure of historicist reason and legitimation. If we are in fact living through the repetition of certain cyclical patterns of history, ideology, and liberal-imperial order that modernists themselves diagnosed, do we still have the commitment to historicist understanding required to read those problems accurately?
In Tense Future (2015), Paul Saint-Amour advances the concept of “weak theory”—not only for thinking about the expanding field of modernism, but for finding a response to “[t]hat exemplary strong theory”: total war. The idea of “weak theory” has since taken on critical momentum of its own, with a Modernism/modernity special issue in 2018 putting a name to an array of approaches against symptomatic reading under the umbrella category of “weak,” not to mention the spate of responses that have since appeared on the Print Plus platform. The present cluster brings weak theory back to war. It does so not because it wants to winnow down the manifold critical possibilities already opened up, but, on the contrary, because the pluralized temporality of weakness continues to hold new possibilities for how we read and write about war. “Where strong theory attempts to ride its sovereign axioms to ‘a future never for a moment in doubt,’” Saint-Amour writes, “weak theory tries to see just a little way ahead, behind, and to the sides, conceiving even of its field in partial and provisional terms that will neither impede, nor yet shatter upon, the arrival of the unforeseen” (Tense, 40). Weak theory suggests a temporality of the unformed, the voluminous, and the indeterminate. It is that temporal mode which emerges across the essays in this special cluster, in which we explore the many ways wartime affects, and is affected by, varieties of temporal critique and temporal understanding.
A first centenary, like 2018’s of the Armistice, is a kind of hinge in time. It marks the point at which a commemorative scale of years and decades begins to swing outward toward a longer scale of centuries and even millennia. Such a moment is like the edge of a continental shelf where, with our feet still in the shallows of calendrical time, we peer over that rim into the undersea canyon of deep time.
It will surprise no one to see wartime treated as an especially narrative problem. Indeed, given the long and apparently necessary relation between war and narrative, a relation that goes back at least to the Iliad and the in medias rage of Achilles, it is probably harder to think of them apart, harder to resist the urge to see both old and new wars in the ready and comfortable terms of already available narrative models: war as an epic or a revenge plot or a rescue mission or a buddy film or an echo of a previous war.
Birds and certain varieties of birds have long been potent symbols related to war and conflict. But as airplane technologies developed in rapid tandem with the coming and arrival of the Second World War, the connection between avian and aviation reached new heights in the cultural imagination.
Interviewed by the BBC a half-century after his service in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Robert Graves recalled the impossibility of relating his World War I experience to family in England
Graves: [T]he idea of being and staying at home was awful because you were with people who didn’t understand what this was all about.
In her article on Japan’s interwar visual culture, Gennifer Weisenfeld has documented and critically discussed a wealth of interwar images, many of them photographic, that involve gas masks. Among them stands out Masao Horino’s 1936 Gas Mask Parade, a photograph showing a formation of girls marching in school uniforms, with gas masks on their faces.