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  • The City Shining on a Hill, or by a Lake: (Re)Thinking Modern Americanness, (Re)Writing the American Lynch Narrative, and Ida B. Wells
  • Cyraina Johnson-Roullier (bio)

In her editor’s introduction to a recent special issue of Modernism/modernity, “Mediamorphosis: Print Culture and Transatlantic/Transnational Public Sphere(s),” Ann Ardis writes that the issue works to “unsettle a very familiar and interrelated set of ‘great divides’ that have governed the study of this period.”1 Ardis’s list of “great divides,” however, leaves one unmentioned: that is, the divide that has traditionally existed between white and black American moderns, or Euro-American authors, especially those belonging to the “Lost Generation,” such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the authors of the Harlem Renaissance. Although the new modernist studies has increasingly made race an important consideration of modern discourse, it has not adequately addressed the deeper significance of this divide.2 In this context, rather than simply pursuing the study of chronologically relevant African American texts, it is important to ask what can the critical encounter with race, as a disembodied concept or idea, bring to an understanding of the modern itself? Certainly, although race has been and is now even more a central concern for modernists, the idea of race itself in modern discourse has largely escaped the meticulous investigation it has received in philosophy for a long time. From this alternative vantage point, race and modernity may be seen to possess what might be termed a more than symbiotic relationship, in which the significance of one may be thought almost to be bred from the other. If, as the preeminent scholar of critical [End Page 45] race theory David Theo Goldberg has articulated, this relationship may be described more fundamentally in terms of the idea that modernity serves both to camouflage and to provide the ground for radical, racially determined exclusions, it is, then, only within its purview that such exclusions may be discovered and laid bare to further examination for the whole of modern discourse. Goldberg writes:

In the case of discriminatory exclusions, it can be strongly concluded that what the moral order fails explicitly to exclude it implicitly authorizes. . . . But in ignoring the social fabric and concrete identities in virtue of which moral judgment and reason are individually effective . . . moral modernity fails to recognize the series of exclusions upon which the state of modernity is constituted. . . . So, though the formal principles of moral modernity condemn and discourage some racist expressions, they fail, and fail necessarily, to condemn and discourage such expressions exhaustively.3

The modernity Goldberg is referring to here is that of the Enlightenment, with its ideas of rationality and reason, equality, liberty and individual freedom, representing a moral order in which the human being was upheld as paramount. In Goldberg’s view, however, it is the human being that supplies the ground for the moral ambiguity he identifies as part and parcel of the modern. For him, it is modernity’s vision of the relation between what is human and what is not human that highlights race as the core problem of modernist moralism. If modern discourse serves to underscore a moral understanding of humanity that focuses on individual freedom and liberty while simultaneously regulating, based on a racial determination, to whom such individuality, freedom and liberty may apply, it must also necessarily blind itself to its own internal contradictions, or the moral universe upon which it is based cannot hope to stand. Thus, it becomes clear that exploring the idea of race as a concept, rather than as a set of racially derived or determined texts or historical moments, insists upon the expansion of modern discourse into the realm of modernity, where it is framed by much more varied, often unfamiliar contexts, and encountered in many different and unexpected forms.

From this perspective, when understood as the complicated circumstance of the modern described by Ardis, print culture offers a very fruitful way to undertake such a study of modernism and modernity. Indeed, Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz identify print culture as a primary site “of modernism’s entanglement . . . with what may seem at first quite unliterary promotions of...


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pp. 45-72
Launched on MUSE
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