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Reviewed by:
  • Bad Modernisms
  • Daniel Worden
Mao, Douglas and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, EDS. Bad Modernisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 365 pp. $24.95.

With such a provocative title and typographically modernist cover, Bad Modernisms raises many expectations. Perhaps the most seductive implication of the volume is that all of the old purities about modernist aesthetics will be overturned and surpassed by new work that articulates a new understanding of modernism as a heterogeneous cultural movement. In keeping with this expectation, the anthology synthesizes much recent work on modernism and also points to new paths yet to be fully explored by scholars of twentieth-century literature and culture. Despite its rebellious title, though, Bad Modernisms exhibits the resilience of traditional ideas about modernism rather than their obsolescence.

The anthology's essays engage in a variety of debates, and the issues that recur most frequently are politics, identities (particularly sexuality, gender, and race), and visual culture, all areas familiarly problematic in modernist studies. The essays that deal with politics by and large dwell on moments of silence, evasion, and resistance in texts. This approach is perhaps best exemplified by Martin Puchner's essay on Wyndham Lewis'S Blast, where he argues that Lewis adopts the form of the manifesto not to endorse a familiar fascist position, to which he is often linked, but instead "to slow [revolutionary modernism] down, to bring it to a halt" (60). Rebecca Walkowitz's essay on Virginia Woolf and cosmopolitanism similarly argues that Woolf seeks to undermine "enduring habits of attentiveness" by evading conventional narrative form (123). Both of these essays propose that the politics of modernism lie precisely in the apolitical qualities of modernist texts, in modernist writers' resistance to everyday political discourse. Lisa Fluet's essay on the "hit man" in modernist and pulp fiction focuses on the figure's centrality to discourses of upward mobility, individualism, and outsider status, casting the contract killer as a symbol of the modernist artist and, more generally, life within the welfare state. Douglas Mao's essay on W. H. Auden and Wyndham Lewis's shared interest in ethnographic accounts of "primitive" societies adds another layer to this emphasis on politics by arguing that both Auden and Lewis maintain a liberal commitment to individualism and dissent. Focusing on the individual as well, Michael LeMaheiu argues that in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which he reads as a kind of precursor to Levinas, one can find an ethics of indebtedness and incompletion. Taken together, these essays interpret modernism as resisting collectivism of all kinds, from socialism to fascism, through an aesthetics that emphasizes difficulty and uncertainty.

Complexity and evasion are also central to the essays that deal with sexuality, gender, and race. Heather Love's remarkable essay about Walter Pater dwells on the possibility that studies of modernism have overemphasized "the heroics of rebellion" and that in Pater's refusal of modernity lies a possibility for a political subjectivity constituted by an open-ended sense of shame that, in fact, is both isolating and full of possibilities for alternative modes of belonging (40). In a gripping essay that [End Page 132] complicates the high/low distinction, Laura Frost argues that D. H. Lawrence's tropes about the consciousness-expanding effects of sexuality find their origin in E. M. Hull's best-seller The Sheik. Further complicating the coherence of modernism as a singular project, Monica L. Miller proposes in an essay on the "black dandy" that precisely because of dandyism's dependence on black and white modernism, the "dandy" figure, with his emphasis on self-fashioning and borrowed style, offers a fruitful way to approach the Harlem Renaissance not as a failed project but as a provocative synthesis of multiple discourses. Joshua Miller reads Carlos Bulosan's The Laughter of My Father not as an orientalizing text but instead as a cynical critique of U.S. imperialism. It is unfortunate that these two essays, the only two that focus on locations outside of cosmopolitan Europe, feel like afterthoughts in an anthology that claims to be influenced by alternative modernities scholarship. If modernism is multiple, as the title of the anthology implies, then the implications of these contributions need to be...


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pp. 132-134
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