Susan Stanford Friedman’s name has become synonymous with the move to broaden modernist studies’ spatial and temporal borders, and Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time is her most sustained statement yet on the promises and pitfalls of the global turn in modernist studies. Part manifesto, part definitional excursus, and part cultural history, the volume asks readers to consider how modernism’s global turn has revolutionized the field of modernist studies. What periodizing concepts, geographic scales, and aesthetic criteria, Friedman wonders, allow us to see modernism on a truly global scale? And to what extent do such new lenses challenge our conventional understandings of what it means to be modernist?
Friedman’s answer to these questions can be summed up in a simple yet bold claim: modernism is “the aesthetic dimension of any given modernity” (x) and can be found in any time and place where “transformational rupture and rapid change” occur (ix). From this deceptively straightforward premise, Friedman makes a case for radically expanding modernist studies’ field of focus. Rather than identify the term “modernism” with a particular style that first emerged in early twentieth-century Europe, Friedman insists we should instead see modernism as a general label for any and all “innovative representational forms” (11). Such a move would open up the field of modernism to not only those so-called late postcolonial modernisms that have helped to globalize the discipline in recent years but also to art and literature from well before the period of high modernism. Indeed, Friedman suggests that for modernism to be truly “planetary,” we need to be able to recognize how the more familiar modernism of early twentieth-century Europe is anticipated by a number of other modernist projects—for example, the art and literature of Tang dynasty China, the Islamic Abbasid caliphate, and the Mongol empire, among others.
Friedman’s project hinges on two radical interventions. First, Friedman joins her name to a long list of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists who theorize modernity as a “multiple, polycentric” phenomenon (10). In contrast to the classical definition of modernity, which identifies this term with the contemporaneous rise of capitalism, secularism, imperialism, and the nation-state in post-1500 Europe, such thinkers point out that many non-Western cultures have exhibited characteristics similar to those found in Western modernity. This is a line of thinking Friedman explores in chapters 3 and 4 of her book, [End Page 172] which survey a number of non-Western modernities: the Islamic and Sinocentric world-systems that dominated global commerce prior to the rise of the West, the imperial state-building efforts of the Chinese Tang and Song dynasties, and the cultural mixings brought about by the spread of the Mongol empire. These examples suggest to Friedman that modernity has never been the sole possession of the West and that any identification of the West with modernity is a purely “ideological” move that attempts to transform a particular culture into a universal model (93).
Friedman then uses this historical narrative to draw an even more provocative conclusion: if modernity is a plural phenomenon that erupts in multiple times and places across human history, couldn’t modernism itself be treated in a similar fashion? Just as global historians provincialize European modernity by reimagining it as one modernity among many, could we not reimagine “’high’ or ‘avant-garde’ modernism as one articulation of a particularly situated modernism—an important modernism but not the measure by which all others are judged and to which all others must be compared” (70)? It should be emphasized that Friedman’s use of the word “modernism” here is at odds with the more familiar use of the term in modernist studies, where it traditionally functions as a label for a specific cultural period or literary style. What Friedman appears to be most interested in examining in Planetary Modernisms is the cultural capital that has accrued to the term, such that modernism has often been idealized as the epitome of “modern” art and literature (40). What is at issue, in other words, is “high” modernism’s claim to a special role in cultural modernity and not any historical genealogy that would connect, say, the Hindi bhakti tradition to early twentieth-century art (208). In re-appropriating the term for non-Western art, Friedman’s larger point is that we should “be open to different kinds of aesthetic innovation” and accord them the same status as has traditionally been reserved for “high” modernism’s famed innovations (70).
Planetary Modernisms aims to be as inclusive as possible in its definition of modernism, yet like any good book, it is structured almost as much by what it excludes as by what it includes. In Friedman’s case, that is Fredric Jameson’s “singular” model of modernity, which associates modernity with a single global world-system bound together by capitalism (59). Friedman’s model of multiple modernities and Jameson’s “singular” one have emerged as the two primary methodological lenses in the field of global modernism, and Friedman takes care to illuminate the stakes involved in choosing between the two. For Friedman, Jameson’s approach is a “reductionistic economism” that leads to a “colonialist dismissal of Latin American or Indian or African modernities,” presumably because capitalism is [End Page 173] an allegedly European phenomenon in Friedman’s eyes (148). I find this to be a somewhat harsh critique of Jameson’s work, in part because Jameson’s notion of a singular modernity imagines capitalism as a global system that is not restricted to Europe but that instead first finds form in the very global trade networks Friedman herself emphasizes. Nevertheless, the hard line Friedman draws between her ideas and Jameson’s helps to show why Friedman objects to literary “periodization,” which has traditionally functioned as a means for identifying certain formal characteristics with particular stages of capitalist development—a connection Friedman aims to sever in her work (87).
The result is a book whose focus on art and literature is both more general and more specific than that provided by period-based accounts of modernism. In her final three chapters, Friedman applies her theory to several case studies, ranging from the eighth-century development of cobalt-blue ceramics in Basra to the more familiar modernism of E. M. Forster and Joseph Conrad. In order to draw these works together, Friedman narrows her focus to the social upheavals modernity has sparked in the “constitutive logics of race, gender, sexuality, class, and caste” (216) and to the way in which art, novels, and poetry have responded to these upheavals. I refer to this methodology as both more general and more specific than period-based accounts because race, gender, and class are objects that do not possess an essential connection to literary form. They are, rather, the social background on which art and literature draw and the subject matter that these cultural productions shape into being. This means that the specificity of aesthetic form often fades into the background in Planetary Modernisms, only to be replaced by a concern with how social change and aesthetic innovation relate to one another. In other words, Friedman seems to be less interested in developing an exhaustive classification of modernist form than in detailing how formal innovation in general relates to historical change.
In the end, there may be no better way to describe this book than invoke the volume’s subtitle: “Provocations on Modernity Across Time.” Planetary Modernisms is self-consciously framed as a provocation to the field of modernist studies, a mission that is reflected in its polemical style and Friedman’s ready admission that her work is only an opening intervention. As a book that is sure to provoke debate for years to come, the title is nothing if not apt. [End Page 174]