- The Contemporaneity of Modernism: Literature, Media, Culture ed. by Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges
Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges open their editors’ Introduction to this collection of essays by asking if the contemporary moment is a modernist moment. The question assumes both that modernism is definitively over and that it is perhaps ongoing: over, in that to ask if the contemporary moment is a modernist moment—rather than if we live in a modernist moment—is to assume that modernism, at least in one familiar sense of the term, is not contemporary; ongoing, in that the legacies or afterlives of modernism somehow continue to manifest themselves in and even give shape to the present. The act of posing the question auspiciously queries the assumption that gives it its meaning.
Contemporary writers and artists continue to evince an ongoing preoccupation with modernism that stems partially from a logical problem: how to reckon with the legacy of a cultural moment that was premised in the first instance on its own contemporaneity. And it stems partially from a historical development: postmodernism has run its course. Not only are we no longer postmodern, the general consensus seems to be, we often no longer describe what once was postmodern as such. “The task for contemporary literature,” novelist Tom McCarthy pronounced in 2010, “is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I’m not trying to be modernist, [End Page 425] but to navigate the wreckage of that project.”1 D’Arcy and Nilges have assembled a first-rate roster of contributors to sift through that wreckage.
The first of the volume’s four sections, “Modernism’s Temporality,” opens with a dexterous essay by C. D. Blanton, who suggests that although “modernism is not only forgettable but in practice forgotten,” the “sensible forms” of modernism nevertheless persist in a “partial contemporaneity [. . .] a strangely suspended shape of historical existence” that Blanton usefully terms “modernism’s half-life” (18, emphasis in original)). Douglas Mao follows with a wide-ranging piece on “climate change in modernist time.” Mao discusses how modernist fiction offers more apt models for thinking through the paradox presented by “the imperatives of the hour and the imperatives of the era,” the quotidian demands of everyday life and the impending catastrophes of planetary time. “The arch anxiety of modernism,” he remarks, “may be more suitable to the twilight of the anthropocene” (42). David Cunningham concludes this section by making the case that the contemporary reemergence of modernity’s internal contradictions intersects with the antinomies of realism.
The second section, “Modernism’s Literary Afterlives,” demonstrates how various contemporary literary works take up some of modernism’s key aesthetic and conceptual terms. Andrew Goldstone demonstrates how modernism’s ideal of aesthetic autonomy, rather than being opposed to social and historical concerns, is itself “constituted through social relations” under specific historical and political conditions (66). Through a deft reading of contemporary writers Dajit Nagra and Ciaran Carson, Sarah Brouillette shows the ways in which their works “clarify and lament how the idea of an impersonal poetry, though pitched against the model of literature as a matter of individual self-expression, simply serves to secure the writer’s authority” (80). Discussing David Mitchell’s fiction, Jesse Matz formulates a nimble concept of “post-filmic impressionism”: “If the original impressionists engaged critically with the fantasy of immediacy, and if their filmic successors made the fantasy at once more widespread and more available to critique, post-filmic impressionist writers today enjoy the opportunity to apply this critique to wider worlds of cultural engagement” (102).
That wider world of cultural engagement is the focus of the book’s third section, “Modernism’s Global Economies.” Enda Duffy’s essay understands the sustained attention to gesture in the twentieth century as a clue “to modernism’s persistence” (121). Duffy argues that “if modernism has again become contemporary, it is because in some sense the social, cultural and economic conditions that gave rise to the earlier modernism now once more pertain to our lives” (122–23). Thomas...