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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 470-479

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Re-Thinking Modernism After the 1990s

Christy L. Burns

Ann Banfield. The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. xviii + 433 pp.
Rosemary Sumner. A Route to Modernism: Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf. New York: St. Martin's P; London: MacMillan P, 2000. xiv + 208 pp.

In the early 1990s, a trajectory of critiques—feminist, post-colonial, and Marxist—culminated in an intensive scrutiny of modernism's politics. The politics of representation, the politics of style, questions about sexuality, the emergence of queer theory and gender studies, and a full embrace of (post)colonial critique—all served to change the face of modernism, throwing previously held beliefs and narratives into doubt. This was, in a sense, an appropriate modernist impulse, arising from fragmented aspects of culture, emphasizing differences in the field rather than unity, and questioning more traditional approaches and ideologies. If the academy, in the 1940s and 1950s, had struggled to tame modern writing and fit it into a more simplistic notion of "politics"—dwelling more on discussion of nations, egos, and wars—the crisis of the 1990s [End Page 470] worked to overturn such elisions and to expand understandings of the avant-garde in terms of the social upheaval of the modernist period. In the wake of this transformation, however, two highly contrastive scholarly strategies have emerged. One continues the critiques of the 1990s, endeavoring to integrate questions about social politics with the pleasurable and engaging aspects of modernism—its humor, its seductive language, its brilliant and shocking innovations with form, and its ability to preclude the impulse toward closure and control. The second trajectory turns away from political critique, seeming to indicate that the "poetics of exhaustion" applies now more to scholarship than to modern literary texts themselves. The fruits of such exhaustion seem to be an effort to get outside of recent debates, to return scholarship to its apolitical status. While this second strategy causes serious problems, perhaps obvious to many readers, it may not necessarily be the case that scholarship that avoids the political replicates the problems of the blind politics of earlier modernist criticism. That, at least, will be one of the questions framing this review of two recent scholarly studies of modernism, which take up the second trajectory.

The Phantom Table sets out, implicitly, to overturn the progressive politics, as scholarship has identified it, in Bloomsbury-centered modernism. Ann Banfield refutes the accepted construct of Virginia Woolf's aesthetic as one marked by rebellion against rationality and logic—the masculine-defined terms of science and philosophy in Woolf's context—arguing that she in fact embraced constructions of language and reason that were central to nascent analytic philosophy at that time. A Route to Modernism, rather than contradicting received definitions of modernism, extends that period's reach, loosening the boundaries traditionally drawn between the Victorian and modern novel; Rosemary Sumner argues that Thomas Hardy's writings embody and inspire many of the modernist experiments with style and perception, and draws a specific connection between his work and the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. While both scholars shy away from explicit discussion of the broader debates about modernism, each takes a particular figure—for Banfield, Bertrand Russell, and for Sumner, Thomas Hardy—and suggests that their work should be more central to contemporary conceptions of what modernism was. Such strategies might shift the field and eventually effect broad changes, and so these books will here be understood not [End Page 471] only in the particulars of their textual and historical arguments but more generally in terms of their potential impact on current interpretations of "modernism."

According to Banfield, Woolf's novels and essays demonstrate a thick connection to the philosophy of Bertrand Russell, known as one of the fathers of analytic philosophy and a major proponent of logic and reason. Banfield's thesis contradicts the established image of Woolf as a feminist who resisted high British imperialism's insistence on the superiority of Western reason and control. She...


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