The Contemporaneity of Modernism: Literature, Media, Culture ed. by Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges
Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges open their editors’ Introduction to this collection of essays by asking if the contemporary moment is a modernist moment. The question assumes both that modernism is definitively over and that it is perhaps ongoing: over, in that to ask if the contemporary moment is a modernist moment—rather than if we live in a modernist moment—is to assume that modernism, at least in one familiar sense of the term, is not contemporary; ongoing, in that the legacies or afterlives of modernism somehow continue to manifest themselves in and even give shape to the present. The act of posing the question auspiciously queries the assumption that gives it its meaning.
Contemporary writers and artists continue to evince an ongoing preoccupation with modernism that stems partially from a logical problem: how to reckon with the legacy of a cultural moment that was premised in the first instance on its own contemporaneity. And it stems partially from a historical development: postmodernism has run its course. Not only are we no longer postmodern, the general consensus seems to be, we often no longer describe what once was postmodern as such. “The task for contemporary literature,” novelist Tom McCarthy pronounced in 2010, “is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I’m not trying to be modernist, [End Page 425] but to navigate the wreckage of that project.”1 D’Arcy and Nilges have assembled a first-rate roster of contributors to sift through that wreckage.
The first of the volume’s four sections, “Modernism’s Temporality,” opens with a dexterous essay by C. D. Blanton, who suggests that although “modernism is not only forgettable but in practice forgotten,” the “sensible forms” of modernism nevertheless persist in a “partial contemporaneity [. . .] a strangely suspended shape of historical existence” that Blanton usefully terms “modernism’s half-life” (18, emphasis in original)). Douglas Mao follows with a wide-ranging piece on “climate change in modernist time.” Mao discusses how modernist fiction offers more apt models for thinking through the paradox presented by “the imperatives of the hour and the imperatives of the era,” the quotidian demands of everyday life and the impending catastrophes of planetary time. “The arch anxiety of modernism,” he remarks, “may be more suitable to the twilight of the anthropocene” (42). David Cunningham concludes this section by making the case that the contemporary reemergence of modernity’s internal contradictions intersects with the antinomies of realism.
The second section, “Modernism’s Literary Afterlives,” demonstrates how various contemporary literary works take up some of modernism’s key aesthetic and conceptual terms. Andrew Goldstone demonstrates how modernism’s ideal of aesthetic autonomy, rather than being opposed to social and historical concerns, is itself “constituted through social relations” under specific historical and political conditions (66). Through a deft reading of contemporary writers Dajit Nagra and Ciaran Carson, Sarah Brouillette shows the ways in which their works “clarify and lament how the idea of an impersonal poetry, though pitched against the model of literature as a matter of individual self-expression, simply serves to secure the writer’s authority” (80). Discussing David Mitchell’s fiction, Jesse Matz formulates a nimble concept of “post-filmic impressionism”: “If the original impressionists engaged critically with the fantasy of immediacy, and if their filmic successors made the fantasy at once more widespread and more available to critique, post-filmic impressionist writers today enjoy the opportunity to apply this critique to wider worlds of cultural engagement” (102).
That wider world of cultural engagement is the focus of the book’s third section, “Modernism’s Global Economies.” Enda Duffy’s essay understands the sustained attention to gesture in the twentieth century as a clue “to modernism’s persistence” (121). Duffy argues that “if modernism has again become contemporary, it is because in some sense the social, cultural and economic conditions that gave rise to the earlier modernism now once more pertain to our lives” (122–23). Thomas S. Davis similarly suggests that “nothing had made modernism feel so contemporary as the global turn in humanities scholarship” and argues for the continued relevance of geopolitical approaches to modernism (134). Eugenio Di Stefano and Emilio Sauri close this section with a compelling reading of Nicolás Cabral’s Catálogo de formas (2014), a text “about the way in which the modernist identification with freedom can only be true today” and which conceptualizes freedom under neoliberal constraints (148).
The final section, “Modernism’s Media,” begins with D’Arcy’s framing of “the contemporary topicality of modernism” through a discussion of photography and fiction (166). Nicholas Brown artfully explores the constitutive tensions between the logic of the market, the conventions of genre, and the imperatives of realism in film (Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions) and television (HBO’s The Wire, the Danish cop show Forbrydelsen). Michaela Bronstein’s innovative essay “Modernist Binge-Watching” (The Wire, again, but also, refreshingly, Lord Jim) shows how the celebrated prestige television serials and the binge-watching they invite expose “the old modernist fantasy of seeing a work as a perfect, whole art object” (199). Through a reading of the work of contemporary poet Mark Leidner, Lisa Siraginian sharply closes the section by showing how contemporary poets refuse “the notion that a renewal of modernism necessarily involves nostalgia or pastiche,” even as they “explore the difficult possibility of renewing modernist form by developing it within the corporate spheres of Twitter, Disneyland, and Hollywood” (204).
The volume concludes with an Afterword by David James, whose previous works (Modernist Futures, The Legacies of Modernism), including a PMLA essay (“Metamodernism”) co-authored with Urmila Seshagiri, have done much to establish contemporary modernism as a vibrant field of study, as has the work of scholars such as Madelyn Detloff (The Persistence of Modernism) and Rebecca Walkowitz (Cosmopolitan Style). This volume represents an important contribution [End Page 426] to that field even as it joins works that examine the periodization of the present, including Post-modern/Postwar—And After, edited by Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden. Indeed, the question of the contemporaneity of modernism is as much about the uncertainties of the present moment as it is about the reemergence of past forms.
The extent to which modernism remains contemporary depends, of course, on how one defines modernism, which has always been a fraught and often a fruitless exercise. No particularly coherent version of modernism emerges in this volume, but neither should one expect such a version, for it likely does not exist. Nevertheless, reading the essays together reveals a number of points of intersection, some familiar (aesthetic autonomy, authorial intention), and others unexpected: the former Docklands of London’s East End are central to Blanton’s essay and then reappear in mediated form in Duffy’s.
Nearly all of the contemporary authors discussed in this volume are working in the twenty-first century, but mid-twentieth-century writers—to name only some canonical examples, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon—are pivotal in accounting for the persistence of modernism in the contemporary moment. In his essay in this collection, which details the recurrence of Joycean aesthetic tactics in works by Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore, Joseph Brooker suggests the need to attend to such figures as Nabokov. As D’Arcy and Nilges remark in their editors’ Introduction, the volume is “committed to revising our understanding of what modernism was in its earlier instantiations, as much as it is interested in accounting for our present moment in art, culture, and literature” (6). Part of that revision might be to consider the mediating role of midcentury writers in the dialectical constitution of modernism’s contemporaneity.
The volume’s achievement is such that one need not share the editors’ conviction that their opening question “is one of the most significant and productive questions for those interested in contemporary cultural and literary production” in order to find value and significance in the essays that comprise the volume. No doubt, as the editors go on to say, the question is central to the work of those scholars “interested in the history, ontology, and function of modernism,” but the question of whether or not we live in a modernist moment may appear less significant for other areas of literary and cultural studies(1). For example, none of the essays in this volume offer readings of texts by African American authors, and questions of race more generally tend to be contextual rather than central. That is less a criticism of the treatment of the topic than a comment on its scope, as it has been traditionally conceived. Yet, as D’Arcy and Nilges note, “modernism occupies a crucial role in the general effort to critically engage with our present as history.” To think the present as history requires working within the very “constitutive contradictions” and “heterogeneous temporalities” that characterize both the origins and the legacies of modernism (7). This collection represents a significant contribution to that effort.
1. Tom McCarthy, interviewed by James Purdon, “To Ignore the Avant Garde Is Akin to Ignoring Darwin,” Observer, 31 July 2010.