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  • Planetarity:Musing Modernist Studies
  • Susan Stanford Friedman (bio)

La modernité, c'est quoi? Modernity, what is it? Imagine a polylogue of reflections on this question.

[fig. 1]1

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Fig. 1.

Anupam Basu. Scripts of Modernity, 2009.

  • • Modernity is Europe's Enlightenment, the break from religious hegemonies and the spread of science, technology, and cosmopolitan ideals of freedom and democracy.

  • • Ilaju ti awon oy-ibo mu wa si ile awon enia dudu, imunisin and imuleru lo da, ati awon orile ede ti ko too rara; orile ede tori jakujaku rederede ranran, opolopo ijoba l'onkuna lotun losi.

    [Modernity is Europe's brutal colonialism built on the systematic enslavement of Africans, arbitrary and imposed nation-state boundaries, and the formation of modern [End Page 471] African identities amidst the legacies of corruption and failed states.] Translated from Yoruba.

  • [Modernity is Bengal's Renaissance, its self-critique and self-realization that emerges in the nineteenth century out of its struggle against British colonialism, not only as Bengalis, but as Indians.] Translated from Bengali.

  • • La modernidad en Latinoamerica es el mestizaje, producto de una mezcla excepcional de culturas colonizadoras y colonizadas; un mestizaje atrapado entre la hegemonía europea y la norteamericana.

    [Modernity is Latin America's métissage, its particular mixture of colonizing and colonized cultures, caught between European and North American hegemonies.] Translated from Spanish.

  • [Modernity is China's project for the future, moving beyond the backwardness of the past and the humiliations of foreign domination, reasserting the centrality of its five-thousand year civilization as a moral, global force.] Translated from Chinese.

  • [Modernity is the Arab world's rebirth of the old informed by religious discourse, Arab humanism, scientific progress, the rationalism of ijtihad, and creative transformation rather than conformity to a stagnant turath (heritage).] Translated from Arabic.

  • [Modernity is Indian Independence, born of British rule, bathed in the blood of Partition, and growing as the world's largest democracy and a technological powerhouse.] Translated from Hindi. [End Page 472]

Modernity, of course, has no single meaning, not even in one location. This polylogue—constructed collaboratively with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—voices particular views shaped by different planetary positionalities.2 Globally and locally, modernity appears infinitely expandable. Listening to these diverse voices, reading their scripts, I despair—especially for the new scholar just entering the field of dreams, a Tower of Babel with too many levels to climb; but also for the older scholar, trained in the old modernist studies: vertigo out on a limb, whirled up into a vortex of the new. Yet I also rejoice. Change is what drew me to modernism in the beginning. Why should it ossify? Why should the fluid freeze over, the undecidable become decided?

All that is solid melts into air.3 We know that. Why should we want a stability for the field that the modernists themselves rebelled against? Caught in the polylogue, we are in the thick of things. At the level of scholarship and teaching we inhabit what it is we study. As W. B. Yeats asks, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"4 We are participating in what we study, and we should not be apologetic about it. This is a planetary epistemology of modernity, of modernism.5

The New Modernist Studies: Expansion and Containment

In their 2008 overview of the "new" modernist studies in PMLA Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz characterize the field's expansions along three major axes—the temporal, horizontal, and vertical, by which they mean the growing historical and geographical reach of modernist studies as well as the dissolution of divisions between high and low art and culture.6 Jennifer Wicke has dubbed the field's making itself new a form of rebranding, a commodification of the field that ensures our own complicity in the logic of globalization.7 In Disciplining Modernism, Pamela L. Caughie asks whether modernism can or should be contained and if so, what would be the ethics/politics of such "disciplining"?8 We wonder, have the field's boundaries become so boundless as to incorporate everything and thus lose all definitional cogency or analytic utility? Does this rebranding...