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The assertion of a thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Mongol modernity vividly captures the shock if not awe of Planetary Modernisms’s agenda to liberate the world and its pasts for “modernism” and “modernity.” Despite being only recently published, Planetary Modernisms needs little introduction for readers of Modernism/modernity, for it brings together more than a decade of influential polemics and provocations concerning the globalization of modernist studies. Several of the chapters are revisions of articles that are already among the most cited in the field. Friedman’s arguments are therefore something about which many if not most in modernist studies already have an opinion, but their collective arrival in book form provides a valuable occasion to revisit, reflect, and reassess.
However complex in implications, the book’s central thesis is relatively easy to summarize. For Friedman, the field of modernist studies has, despite its numerous recent geographic expansions, remained trapped in profoundly Eurocentric categories. No matter how flexible and inclusive the aesthetic criteria for modernism become, as long as its periodization remains centered around the early part of the twentieth century, the field remains necessarily Eurocentric. Such a periodization, the argument continues, is based on an understanding of modernity as a singular event whose defining criteria are all derived from European and thus Eurocentric history. Even if the historical horizon is stretched back to the Enlightenment, the Reformation, or Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the frame of reference remains essentially European. Similarly, modifiers such as “alternative,” “minor,” and so on “do not effectively challenge the metanarrative of Western modernity. They maintain it; indeed, they need it to make any sense whatsoever” (149). The problem, as Friedman formulates it, is that “generalizations about historical periods typically contain covert assumptions about space that privilege one location over others,” a claim that does not strike me as especially controversial (87). She adds to this, however, the claim that in effect any periodization of modernity “reinforces the ideological construction of ‘the West’ and ‘Western society and culture’ as the defining center of world history” (85).
Periodization is not the only topic this sprawling and ambitious book addresses, but it is central both to its other arguments and to understanding its contribution to the field. Friedman calls for a reconceptualization of modernisms and modernities (both emphatically plural) such that they might, at least potentially, be found anywhere on the planet and at any moment in human history. The latter claim is distinctive if not unique to Friedman. I imagine many in the field today would agree that “[i]f modernist studies develops out of an entirely Western archive or out of a diffusionist model of Western expansionism, the danger of parochialism and false universalisms is palpable” and that it therefore makes sense “that we stop using this particular modernism as the default position for modernism per se, that we stop universalizing it to stand in for modernism itself and as the measure of all other modernisms” (313, 186). Taken in isolation, such an assertion represents a truth widely if not quite universally acknowledged. Few readers will be scandalized by Friedman’s inclusion, under the rubric of modernism, of the turn of the century Bengal Renaissance or even Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée (1982), much less Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966). The impassioned case for a Mongol modernism, however, makes clear that her ambition ranges far beyond the now familiar canon-stretching implied by critiques of belatedness, imitativeness, and peripherality. Friedman’s goal is “to break away from periodization altogether” (7, my emphases). [End Page 686]
This raises more than a few questions, questions Friedman has been asked, more but sometimes less politely, since around the turn of our century. As Friedman herself writes, and as her subtitle suggests, her “intent has been to provoke more debate, not close it off” (311). In this the project has already succeeded and no doubt will continue to. The book’s style is alternately playful and exacting, righteous and modest. I...