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Plebeianization, Un/Bound Seriality, and Global Modernism

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 279-297 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Plebeianization, Un/Bound Seriality, and Global Modernism

The masters of the Mediterranean are fellaheen today.

—James Joyce, Ulysses

We are like a dish of loose sand.

—Lu Xun, Selected Works

In tandem with the renewed interest in world literature and global comparativism, contemporary modernist studies has become much more visibly invested in reconfiguring its archive under new spatial and temporal modalities. The new modernist studies constitutes its analytical framework in the expanded field of twentieth-century cultural globalization and calls for reexamining the historical conjuncture of modernism prior to its co-optation into the triumphant discourse of the North Atlantic bloc, where a particular strand of aesthetic experimentation was codified into an inventory of universal hegemonic techniques.1 Similar to the eventual bankruptcy of the modernization theory in area studies, the North Atlantic ideology of modernism has lost its sustainability in explaining other modernist situations, such as African négritude, Brazilian anthropofagia, Greek ellinikotita, Arab hadatha, and so on, where notions such as elite, tradition, and popularity assume different codings.2 To conceptualize these differences through tropes of derivation or of exception is to be trapped in the binary of innovative centers and imitative peripheries. Drawing more expansive maps of the modern, the new trajectories have challenged the foundational tenets of the classic accounts of modernism by enlarging the scope to include racially, sexually, and geographically marginal(ized) works and authors, as well as nascent methodologies in cultural history and literary criticism.3 The new modernist studies aims [End Page 279] in particular at the rerouting of modernity through a set of alternative texts and traditions that might initially appear outside official borders of the unarticulated, yet powerful cartographic paradigm. These modulations around the times, spaces, and agents of modernism have certainly led to a greater recognition of its multiplicity.4 Speculatively speaking, Matei Calinescu's groundbreaking work, Five Faces of Modernity (1987), now has to be rewritten as "A Thousand Faces of Modernity."

Even so, the concept of global modernism may still run the risk of producing a diffusionist model in which modernism is taken as the standard measure for what Pascale Casanova calls the "Greenwich meridian time" of the world literary space and the privileged aesthetic mandate for entering the literary present.5 Rather than focusing on how modernism travels the globe or can be found in different parts of the world, in this essay I want to propose an interpretive framework that situates different constellations of modernism in relation to how they mediate a phenomenology of globality through subjective affects of the historically determined transformations in everyday common life.6 I locate the formation of twentieth-century modernisms in a globally dispersed process that I call plebeianization—a concept that refers to the dissolution and reconstitution of former traditional forms of subjectivity (that were expressed in terms of various status designations and social polarities such as urban-rural, bourgeois—peasant, metropolitan—colonial, entrepreneur-laborer, and so on) in the broadened social basis of modern culture. To rephrase Marx's famous maxim, all solid forms of subjecthood melt into air. This is not to say that these subject positions cease to exist. Rather, they lose their presumed stability under the mobilizing kinetics of imperialist/ finance capitalism and are inflected by new national, class, racial, and geopolitical situations.

At this juncture, it is necessary to note the dialectical double bind of this transformation. On the one hand, plebeianization describes a destructive process that violently opens up the lifeworld of the common individual to capitalism. The plebeian, in my special usage, refers to this mode of subjectivity that becomes increasingly vulnerable to, and more immediately impacted by, the penetration of the global system in everyday life. From this perspective, plebeianization connotes an existential reduction, subjective shrinking, depersonalization, and anonymity of the self. Indeed, almost all the classic accounts of modernism tend to define plebeianization through tropes of historical decay, existential anguish, social fragmentation, linguistic failure, and subjective alienation. It is, in short, a negative process that threatens the subject's control over its private destiny. And yet, on the other hand, the leveling impact of capitalist modernity on [End Page 280] the private self brings about (as...