restricted access Pragmatic Modernism by Lisi Schoenbach (review)
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Reviewed by
Lisi Schoenbach. Pragmatic Modernism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 146pp.

In her ambitious study of pragmatic modernism, Lisi Schoenbach uses pragmatist philosophy to challenge the sovereignty of concepts such as rupture, shock, and anti-institutionality in modernist studies. Building on the field of New Modernist Studies, Schoenbach reads four diverse modernist figures—Gertrude Stein, Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Marcel Proust—through their treatments of habit and institutions. These readings form the foundation of Schoen-bach’s alternate approach to modernist studies, an approach that counters the “standard idea of modernism-as-break” (3). In its place, Schoenbach proposes that pragmatic modernism takes a “gradualist” approach to rapid geographical, political, and artistic change by focusing on habit and institution. Stein, James, and others address the central question of Schoenbach’s study: how do we integrate radical change into everyday life? Do we institutionalize rupture or habituate ourselves to shock over the long term?

Schoenbach’s work redresses what she sees as modernist studies’ problematic adherence to the ideology of rupture by showing, for instance, how both individual habits and institutions adapt to rapid social and historical change, how even avant-garde forms like the manifesto rely on habit in arguing for radical change, and how both avant-garde and pragmatic modernism consider the relation between shock and habit. Schoenbach reevaluates the current and historical critical rejection of habit by arguing that “no one can break free from habit, nor can habits break free from the institutions within which they develop” (145). As she argues, both avant-garde modernism and philosophical pragmatism share an interest in re-integrating art into life, uniting theory with practice, analyzing the relationships between institutions and social change. The difference between them, she claims, is their treatment of habit. Rather than see habit as consistently stultifying, pragmatic modernism treats habit as generative and productive.

While her succinct introduction persuasively resituates the role of habit in literary modernism and critical approaches to modernism, the chapters that follow do not always deliver the focused close readings that would be necessary to substantiate the ambitious opening claims. The book is structured in two parts. The first section offers an encyclopedic reading of the philosophical history of habit, exploring meanings ranging from personal hygiene to social formation. Schoenbach analyzes the work of William James, Dewey, Aristotle, Darwin, Benjamin, and Adorno to reframe habit as progressive rather than deadening. This analysis sets the stage for Schoenbach’s later reading [End Page 863] of conventionally avant-garde texts like the surrealist manifestos. Yet because “habit” is a capacious term, the chapter’s exhaustive account of its philosophical history, while valuable as an exploration of the concept, does not demonstrate how Schoenbach intends to use “habit” and leaves the term somewhat ambiguous.

The second chapter, on Gertrude Stein, picks up on the introduction’s insightful analysis of a conflict between Stein and the editors of transition to show how Stein’s work transgressed the ideology of rupture that defined the modernist avant-garde. Stein is the linchpin of Schoenbach’s project, and this chapter’s reading of Paris France (1940) persuasively distinguishes Stein’s work from the work of the surrealists by arguing that Stein embraced habit as both “stultifying and enabling of original thought” (49). Unlike many of her contemporaries, including Eugene Jolas and the editors of transition who elide the role of habit in generating change, Stein focuses on rendering habit visible. For instance, Stein’s interest in cinema, particularly in cinema’s use of mechanization and repetition, works as a metaphor for work overall and reflects her “vision of habitual repetitions” (52). Schoenbach is inventive in her formal readings of Stein, showing, for example, how Stein’s repetitive use of the comma captures an ongoing tension between habitual behavior and independent thought.

The second half of the book departs from individual habit to address institutional habits and their effects on individual and collective behaviors, primarily in the work of Henry James. Whereas Stein’s work exemplifies pragmatic modernism’s aesthetic approach to habit, James’s work focuses on the effects of institutions. The third chapter, focusing on Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The...


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