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  • Modernism and Theory: A Critical Debate
  • Judith Roof (bio)
Modernism and Theory: A Critical Debate. Edited by Stephen Ross . London: Routledge, 2009. 276 pp. Cloth $130.00, paper $39.95.

Modernism and Theory: A Critical Debate centers on one of the fractures that has emerged from the revivified field of modernist studies. Noting modernist studies' largely historicist and archivist turn, this thoughtful collection interrogates the intersections of critical theory, formulations of modernism, and modernist literature and art. Asking whether modernist studies' historicist bent has left behind not only the theoretical bases of historicism itself but also the fecund possibilities of other modes of inquiry, Modernism and Theory reengages sets of theories and approaches with crucial issues of modernist study, including questions of period, category, temporality, aesthetics, ethics, and the modernist provenance of much critical theory. At issue is whether and why modernist studies seems to have abandoned a larger and more diverse engagement with critical theories both in themselves and as modes of self-conscious reflection on the methods and assumptions of modernist critical practice. At issue, too, are questions of definition whose consideration might benefit from a wider range of critical perspectives. What is modernism? What is theory? How can we understand modernist phenomena without theory? Or, and perhaps more dubiously, how, if history is the default parameter of contemporary modernist studies, can we understand modernist phenomena in overt relation to critical theories?

The collection consists of two sections that stage dialogical critical encounters—a section entitled "Concrete Connections" and one called "Abstract Affiliations"—followed by a section dubbed "Forum" in which noted scholars of modernism present more thematically defined concerns. Each section presents a range of perspectives while focusing on specific [End Page 266] issues relevant to modernist studies. The essay/response format of the first two sections works effectively to sharpen questions and demonstrate divergent arguments. "Concrete Connections" presents four rich encounters in which critics demonstrate the intrinsic relations between modernism and the work of such theorists as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Henri Lefebvre, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek. Anneleen Masschelein, for example, traces Deleuze and Guattari's indebtedness to the work of D. H. Lawrence, whose meditations on psychology, she suggests, offer a countermodel to dominant Freudian approaches. Masschelein shows how Lawrence provides Deleuze and Guattari with sets of analogies and concepts that they develop in their own formulations of the flow of the unconscious. Ian Buchanan's response to Masschelein demonstrates that Deleuze and Guattari read their modernist sources "clinically," especially insofar as Lawrence and Antonin Artaud provide models for Deleuze and Guattari's elaboration of a "body without organs."

The essays of this first section engender a useful conversation about the relations among literary, graphic, and theoretical works. Roger Rothman elaborates in his essay on surrealism and the sublime as reread by Deleuze and Derrida, which is accompanied by respondent Alan Stoekl's introduction of Kant into the discussion. Thomas Davis explores Henri Lefebvre's reliance on the example of modern art as partially constitutive of his ideas of the function of the "everyday," answered by Ben Highmore's beautifully focused analysis of modernist field and method. Hilary Thompson traces modernist concepts of temporality through the work of Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, and Agamben, an essay augmented by Pam Caughie's plea for "interhistoricism." Each pair of essays demonstrates the ways modernist texts, ideas of history and temporality, and notions of the "new" become catalysts of subsequent theories of the relations between art and politics, questions regarding cultural production, critiques of language and representation, and problems of ethics and philosophy.

In like dialogical manner, the second section continues the collection's tracing of affiliations but brings to the fore more of the paradoxes and problems of thinking about periodicity and representing history. Neil Levi's essay and Glenn Willmott's response work through what David Wills dubs "dorsality" in Jameson's, Rorty's, and Badiou's thinking about the "event" in modernism. In particular these two essays outline the problems of trying to talk about a "period" that cannot be "periodized" and the ways a modernist impetus to discard tradition relies precisely on the tradition it tries to discard. Using the...


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