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  • Weak Theory, Weak Modernism
  • Paul K. Saint-Amour (bio)

Weakness: not a word that would seem, at first blush, to have anything to say to modernism. Modernism doesn't blush; it blasts. Its reputation is for strength in extremis—for steep critiques of modernity, energetic convention busting, the breaking of vessels. In the words of its early theorists, modernism is "rebellion against authority," a "revolution of the word," "kicking over old walls" and "breaking of 'Do Nots.'"1 Nothing small-bore about revolt, nothing weak about making it new. Surely weakness is modernism's obverse—injured, low-energy, and acquiescent—all the cloying orthodoxy that modernism would shock its way out of. Modernism is the production of aesthetic strength through iconoclasm and strenuous innovation. It is strong people exhibiting strength.

Or so the story used to go. From the perspective of the present, that story sounds enthralled with the self-mythologizing of a handful of male writers, germane to only a narrow bandwidth of the cultural production we have come to call modernist, and then only to its self-understanding. It verges on cartoon vitalism. Equating modernism with this kind of muscular idol smashing and warrior masculinity misses both the traditionalism of the strong and the dissidence of the weak. It favors metropolitan spaces hospitable to consensus about what counts as convention and what as rebellion. It skews away from generations who understood themselves as extending rather than negating the work of modernist forebears. And it rules out whole areas of study that have lately become important in our field, including the everyday, the domestic, the affective, the middlebrow, the infrastructural, the doctrinal. "Strong" modernism belongs to a largely superseded moment in modernist studies. [End Page 437]

Yet with modernism as with so much else, it's one thing to let go of strength and quite another to embrace weakness. Weakness comes with a lot of baggage. It sits at the center of a dense array of slurs by which marginal subjects have been kept marginal. The word weak can function in an ableist heteropatriarchy as a synonym, variously, for woman, queer, and disabled. A feminist, anti-homophobic, disability-oriented practice encounters weakness first as a charge to disprove, only secondarily as part of a logic to dismantle. In what follows, some meanings of weakness will present themselves as normative (i.e., evaluative or judgmental) and others as non-normative (i.e., non-evaluative or descriptive). Some will plainly participate in the semantic fields of gender, sexuality, or ability while others will not. But even the ostensibly non-normative meanings of weak—including its earliest sense as "pliant, flexible, readily bending"—are tinged with its normative ones, as even the non-gendered meanings (for example) bear some memory of, or association with, the gendered ones.2 In considering what weakness might afford us theoretically or methodologically, we are still and always confronting a term of subjection. Rather than pretend we can simply hive off this history by thickening a few semantic firewalls, we do better to keep in mind the tendency of descriptive and dismissive senses of weakness to interfere with one another. This would be to remember that in taking up non-normative forms of weakness we are also reclaiming a term of derogation—even as no theoretical embrace of weakness is reducible to such a reclamation.

If weakness is such a loaded concept, why not find some other way to characterize our theorizing and field-construction? One answer is that the various loads borne by weakness can productively decenter what they encounter. Baggage unbalances. To the extent that the terms theory and modernism are still masculine-gendered, conjoining them with weakness further discomfits that gendering. The same conjuncture may vex what remains of both terms' association with normative modes of sexuality, mindedness, and embodiment. Weakness, that is, helps us continue to make theory and modernism strange to themselves. It does so not just in its capacity to unsettle by association but, more and more, through paradigms of weak thought—paradigms that have largely emerged in fields that address difference, stigma, and inequity. This has been especially true of queer theory, whose dissident relationship to strong ideologies of sex...


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pp. 437-459
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