Thomas S. Davis is Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University. He is the author of The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (Columbia University Press, 2016). His In These Times blog entry is taken from fieldwork for his current project, Unnatural Attachments: Aesthetic Education for the Anthropocene. He and Nathan Hensley co-edited the Modernism/modernity Print Plus cluster "Scale and Form: or, What Was Global Modernism?"
Thomas S. Davis
Austral summer on the Antarctic Peninsula. Eight of us climb out of our zodiac onto the shore of Petermann Island. This place dazzles and overwhelms the senses. The luminous blue icebergs, granite streaked pink with penguin guano, the weakly green cryoplankton spread across the snow. Antarctica is not the white continent of popular imagination. And it isn’t quiet either. The plangent groans of glaciers crawl across the landscape, reverberating through our bodies. Gentoo penguins squawk atop their stone nests, staring helplessly skyward at the skuas eying their young. We are unwelcome, unneeded guests.
Transnational, geopolitical, cosmopolitan, planetary: the language of the global turn in modernist studies is now instantly recognizable to the field’s professional and aspiring practitioners. This new lexicon percolates across journals, conferences, monographs, and other sites of consecrated disciplinary activity, and represents what Aarthi Vadde, in her contribution to this cluster, refers to as global modernism’s “definitional proliferation.” Like any other expansion of specialized terms, the language game of global modernism takes the form of scholarly disagreement: it generates affiliation and disaffiliation at the levels of panel and plenary, article and book. Yet arguments among partisans of this term or that one paper over an implicit consensus about the coherence and importance of its central concept, modernism, an agreement that (in Adorno’s words cited above) “illuminates the ether in which the jargon flourishes.”