In an essay on Herman Melville, D. H. Lawrence describes the Pacific Islands as “a vast vacuum, in which, mirage-like, continues the life of myriads of ages back.” Modernist studies has yet to awaken from this dream of Oceania as the hazy antithesis of modernity, a place “not come to any modern consciousness”: although the tide is turning, the Pacific has typically been treated not as an active site of cultural production, but as a tropical backdrop for the adventures of the likes of Gauguin, Stevenson, and Melville (Lawrence, “Herman Melville,” 114). Uncalculated as this scholarly exclusion may be, it cannot but reinforce the sense that modernism and modernity demand an unmodern Other, figuring Pacific peoples in binaries that the new modernist studies has worked to undermine.
Those of us who work in traditions considered “global” within US and, to varying degrees, European academies are often pulled in two professional directions. On the one hand, many of us feel rightly accountable to a kind of work most welcome in area studies: granular, situated, concerned with historical depth over what can feel like untenable generalization. On the other, we feel the sting of exclusion from the field’s “big” conversations, and seek broad conceptual discussion of “the literary,” as such. Both impulses—as an Africanist, I think here of toggling between the African Studies Association and the MLA—have value. In the effort to entrench a globally conscientious modernism, though, I find their differences hard to split. Terms like “global modernity” often feel removed from the lives and locales that anchor aesthetic practices beyond a few transnational publishing houses. Neither an historically intertwined (whether network-based or world-systematic) nor a discrete, comparative approach to global modernist method feels quite right, and yet the challenge to find something that does (to modernists, at least) is perennially cast as urgent. Job and book titles aside, I have grown to see Global Northern takes on the “global” even within the “global Anglophone” field as an over-beat drum, stemming as they often do from a form of what Modernism/modernity readers might recognize as “weak theory.” As David Ayers has written in his reponse to the Modernism/modernity special issue on weak theory, there is only so much one can do to inclusivize an exclusive position, which, like a maximally expansive modernism, “simultaneously claims and renounces its universality.