Gabriel Hankins is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University. His first book is Interwar Modernism and the Liberal World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
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?
It’s been nearly a year now since the publication of M/m’s special issue on Weak Theory, a year of conversations both here on Print Plus—and, as Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir point out, across a range of other professional and para-professional spaces of engagement. Many thanks to all who have taken part!
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. 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. Digital methods appear both too weak and too strong for use on literary objects, particularly objects so delicately rebarbative as those of modernism.
We modernist scholars are all digital modernists now, and for a variety of reasons. Listening to recent debates in both modernist studies and the digital humanities, one would not think this was the case. Digital scholarship is often presented as the preserve of a special inter- or infra-disciplinary conversation distinct from the professional fields that contribute to it, thus presenting digital scholarship as a set of methods distinct and particular to digital humanists.