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IKEA Modernism and the Perils of Innovation
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IKEA Modernism and the Perils of Innovation

What are the rewards, challenges, and risks of innovation in general? Is there necessarily an inherent value in “making it new” in pedagogy?

Like some of the other respondents—Marsha Bryant and Suzanne Churchill with their “periodical pedagogy” or David Earle in his deployment of MySpace in the classroom—I find that my teaching often involves the juxtaposing of canonical texts and items drawn from the popular and extra-artistic reaches of culture. In general, I try to make things new for my students the old-fashioned way—by addressing and readdressing the contemporary pertinence of the texts that we read. In particular, I am most interested in having my students see the persistence of the formal innovations of modernism—the way that certain strains of irony, estrangement, and montage developed during the modernist period are still central to aesthetic creation today. The shows and movies that we see, the news that we watch at night, and even many of the websites that play an increasingly important role in our lives all bear the marks of modernist influence, however indirect or subtle.

When I happen upon just the right contemporary analogue, this tactic of mine seems to be very effective. The past and present bring each other into sharp focus as an apparently arcane literary form comes to appear familiar, already a part of my students’ everyday experiences of media and entertainment, yet something they suddenly feel empowered to understand and describe. (It would probably be too much to compare the effect to Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “dialectical image,” but perhaps the same sort of idea is at play.)1 The students speak [End Page 493] more excitedly when things are opened up this way, and when we turn back to Joyce or Eliot or Woolf, the excitement tends to persist. The classroom becomes a happier and more productive place. And amidst all this engagement and interest, and without saying a word about it, I begin to get very deeply worried.

The best way to show why I am so worried is to tell a story. Last year I decided to open a course on modern European fiction by showing a set of advertisements stored on YouTube that had been on my mind during the last weeks of the summer.2 They seemed to me uncannily good evocations of some of the principal stances of modernist narrative form, complete works viewable in 30 seconds that would bring my students face to face with the issues of technique and tone that would preoccupy us all semester.

The best one of all is a brilliant spot directed by the filmmaker Spike Jonze for IKEA. Soapy, maudlin piano music plays as we watch a woman unplug the tired reading lamp that sits on a side table next to her sofa and carry it out to the curb for garbage pickup. The camera angle shifts to impersonate the perspective of the lamp itself, as it takes its last look at its comfortable home, staring back at the shut front door and finally, during a dark and stormy night, watching its former mistress reading under the light of a brand new lamp, which she caresses softly before turning in for the night. We get a bit wrapped up in the scene, so cunningly is it shot, until, just as the music comes to its melodramatic crescendo, an odd-looking man with what seems to be a Swedish accent strolls into the shot, looks into the camera, and addresses us directly: “Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you’re crazy. It has no feelings. And the new one is much better.”

It’s a great joke, of course, and a great vehicle for IKEA’s long-standing (and, in a sense, modernist, if cynically so) pitch: you won’t really stop being a child so long as your home is full of your parents’ old furniture, so throw it all out, head to IKEA and make it (your apartment, yourself) new. But the usefulness of the ad as a means to open a window on modernist form extends beyond...