In his 2011 article for the minnesota review, "The New Modernist Studies: What's Left of Political Formalism?," Max Brzezinski implicates Rebecca Walkowitz, Douglas Mao, and Martin Puchner in the instigation of a methodological turn in contemporary modernist studies that has so far betrayed no signs of reversing course.1 This turn, Brzezinski worries, is notable less for having expanded what Mao and Walkowitz describe in their now-canonical 2008 co-authored PMLA article as the "vertical" and "horizontal" vectors directing the future of modernist studies, than it is for capitulating to the "political flattening" of academic research that characterizes the neoliberal ethos of the twenty-first century university: "the transformation of a critical movement into a marketable intellectual commodity" (109). Puchner's Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes (2005) is paradigmatic, in Brzezinski's view, of how contemporary modernist scholarship performs a depoliticizing function under disingenuous cover of political progressivism, for what Puchner achieved in his award-winning book, Brzezinski continues, is nothing more commendable than having reduced both political and aesthetic "revolutions of the past" into "objects of disinterested theoretical appreciation" (111). So it is that while Puchner makes much of the "manifesto form's ability to make claims on and shape the future," Brzezinski writes, "the 'future' as a critical category seems almost politically contentless," which accords with the demands of new modernist studies (intentionally or otherwise) to capitalize on the aesthetic properties of revolutionary discourse without any substantive allegiance to sociopolitical revolutionary commitments (111). Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto has value, in Puchner's hands, only for its invention of an avant-garde aesthetic genre and not, from the depoliticized vantage point of the new modernist studies, for its political investments in utopian reconstructions of the social order under capitalist modes of production. This is, for Brzezinski, perhaps the ultimate betrayal of the Marxist legacy and a testament to the ideological complicity of new modernist studies in the institutional consolidation of neoliberalism: "is the Neo in Neoliberalism the New in New Modernist Studies?" (120; emphasis in original).
Puchner responded to Brzezinski's accusations of neoliberal complicity in the 2012 issue of the minnesota review, defending his aestheticization of The Communist Manifesto on the grounds that the best way to resist the siren song of neoliberalism is for "[w]e in literature" to reject being "lured away from our strengths in a misguided attempt to be better economists, political scientists, or historians. If we want to reverse our marginalization," Puchner contends, then we must not be afraid to embrace the fact that literary scholars know more about "how literature works, and I mean this in the broadest sense, from production to reception, how literature is written, how it is received, how it acts in the world and fails to act in the world. … Historians are better at writing a history of revolutions. We are better at writing a history of their 'poetry.'"2
Puchner's defense of the specialized study of literature, and specifically of "how literature works" in his response to Brzezinski, is useful for approaching the two books under review here—William S. Allen's Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno, and Autonomy and Audrey Wasser's The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form—with an eye on their scholarly contribution to some of the most pressing methodological debates in modernist studies today.
At first glance, neither Allen's nor Wasser's books would appear to have anything at all to do with either the "vertical" or "horizontal" expansions of the new modernist studies. With their shared emphasis on concepts like "negativity," "autonomy," and the "genuinely new," both Allen and Wasser have risked anachronistic critical interventions into ways of reading literary (and philosophical) texts, and of understanding modernist processes of literary production, through concepts that have all but lost their theoretical currency under...