- Habits of Modernism
What does it mean to practice pragmatic literary criticism?1 For the majority of the twentieth century, there appeared to be little overlap between pragmatic and literary lines of inquiry. In the 1950s, at a moment when pragmatism was being heralded as “almost the official philosophy of America,” New Criticism’s open hostility towards pragmatist thinking restricted its influence on literary studies.2 With the rise of deconstruction and post-structuralism, pragmatism remained relegated to the sidelines of literary study. By the 1980s, however, pragmatist thought began to gain traction in literature departments in America. An important catalyst for a literary turn towards pragmatism was Richard Rorty’s influential challenge to representationalist theories of language and perception in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Rather than a mirror that reflects and clarifies reality, language is for Rorty the radically contingent core of all experience. His contention that linguistic redescription can remake the world has resonated strongly with critics invested in the idea that literary language not only illuminates, but also potentially transforms, conditions of living.
Rorty has been called “the foremost proponent of American pragmatist thought,” though his own professed preference is to be characterized “as someone who tried to retrieve some stuff in Dewey [End Page 853] that . . . was in danger of being forgotten.” And yet, in Rorty’s estimation, this project of retrieval has little to offer people studying literature.3 His contention would seem to be confirmed by the dearth of literary critics who have looked to John Dewey as a guiding figure, even as pragmatism’s significance for the study of literature has been established over the past thirty years.4 Lisi Schoenbach’s declaration that Dewey is “the unassuming philosophical hero” of her book Pragmatic Modernism (2012) serves as a welcome corrective to Rorty’s dismissal and to Dewey’s wider neglect in literary studies (10).
Like Rorty, Schoenbach credits John Dewey with pioneering a “recontextualizing mode” of investigation into sudden or novel encounters (13). In Rorty’s interpretation, the term recontextualization describes the way we accommodate small and large-scale paradigm shifts by reweaving our “webs of beliefs and desires” in response to change. On one end of the spectrum are the “routine calculations” that allow us to assimilate minor alterations into the social fabric of daily life. At the other end of the continuum are dramatic transformations like those spurred by “revolutionary science or politics.”5 While Rorty’s discussion of recontextualization focuses on the history of Western philosophy, Schoenbach unexpectedly finds Dewey’s recontextualizing logic powerfully at work in literary modernism. Her suggestion that figures like Henry James and Gertrude Stein took a recontextualizing approach to modern change counters a long tradition of modernist literary criticism that relies on what she calls “the ideology of the break.” “To this day,” Schoenbach argues, “modernism continues to be defined by its celebration of heroic opposition, its clean break from the past, its anti-institutional stand, and its emphasis on shock and radical discontinuity” (4). As she shows, the dominant narrative of “modernism-as-break” frequently occludes an equally strong modernist investment in more gradual and continuous processes of incorporating change into the framework of experience (3). For the pragmatic modernist, a moment of radical rupture cannot be understood in isolation from its animating and resulting conditions. As each of the writers and thinkers of Schoenbach’s study recognizes, violent upheaval catalyzes sustainable social change and meaningful aesthetic innovation only to the extent that those transformations are integrated into an ongoing praxis of life.
The critical term at the center of Schoenbach’s study—habit—may seem like an unlikely source of common ground between modernism and pragmatism. Habit’s embattled status in avant-garde aesthetics is exemplified by modernist manifestoes that call for the demolition of [End Page 854] all routines, conventions, and traditions that stultify the mind. Viktor Shklovsky’s famous polemic in favor of an art of defamiliarization underwrites a widespread commitment to countering the deadening force of “habitualization” (6). From this vantage, William James and John Dewey’s...