restricted access Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time by Susan Stanford Friedman (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan Stanford Friedman. Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time. New York: Columbia UP, 2015. xii + 451 pp.

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...


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