- Modernist Communities across Cultures and Media ed. by Caroline Pollentier and Sarah Wilson
Modernist Communities Across Cultures and Media asks us to reconsider notions of community as both practiced and proposed by modernists. As the title suggests, the collection is particularly attuned to how media enable, constrain, and foreclose community, forcing modernist practitioners to remediate not just texts, but larger conceptions of publics as well. The collection is itself an experiment in community across cultures, arising from the first conference of the French Société d’Études Modernistes (SEM) in 2014, adding contributors from India, the UK, Canada, and the US. In arguing for “diffuse and evanescent” conceptions of community, the book deploys a range of methodologies, reads texts in numerous languages, and explores works from the forbidding heights of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) down to Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled detective novel Red Harvest (1929), which in Benoît Tadié’s brilliant reading forms part of modernism’s protest against Woodrow Wilson, “who is obliquely evoked as a figure representing autocratic systems of power, outdated languages, and the sins of the fathers” (2, 124). The upshot of such a catholic approach is that the collection demonstrates what it strives to describe: “provisional ideas of community . . . ones that linger on the isolated experiment rather than focusing on its value and applicability to an overall society” (4).
Some communities traditionally considered under the modernist flag, like Bloomsbury, worked side by side, but not necessarily in close collaboration (Vanessa Bell’s book jacket designs are a case in point, with Bell producing them independently of input from her sister, Virginia Woolf). If scholars of modernism used to describe these groupings via the rubric of individual authors considered serially, Modernist Communities productively shifts the conversation by focusing on creative works and looking outward from that vantage to the communities that surrounded their production. Take for instance a chapter that covers the evolution of the Dada artwork L’Œil cacodylate, which—though attributed to Francis Picabia—is exemplary of “the group-making effort” of Dadaists whose “self-representations and mimicry . . . subvert traditional authorship boundaries” (51). As Irene Gammel points out, Picabia first decorated the canvas in his hospital room when he inserted a title playing on the name of his eye condition, cacodylic sodium. But thereafter the canvas became a group project, with well-wishers Suzanne Duchamp, Marthe Chenal, Isadora Duncan, Tristan Tzara, Man Ray, and many others contributing signatures full of in-group jokes and playing on their other recent works. Similar in approach is Supriya Chaudhuri’s fascinating study of Parichay, a 1930s Bengali journal published by an international group [End Page 870] of politicians, scholars, and artists in Calcutta who met up to four times a month for spirited conversations, or āddā, a practice that “defines the social life of modernism in Bengal” (179). Hélène Aji then takes us across the Atlantic to Black Mountain College, the North Carolina school directed by Charles Olson. Famous for its faculty—Walter Gropius, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell among them—and for its demise following a policy of refusing “to direct and to rationalize, and a denial of the supremacy of a presumed common good over the freedom of the community,” the school also inspired life-long collaborations between John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jackson Mac Low (76). Instead of offering a straightforward celebration of collaboration tout court, Aji recuperates the three artists’ divergent approaches to aleatory methods of composition to demonstrate how the results were “consistently optimistic and pessimistic, dynamic and constraining, hopeful and desperate, free and lost” (85).
With this wide-ranging interest sometimes follows the perils of disjointedness, which are largely staved off by the introduction by Caroline Pollentier and Sarah Wilson. At first glance the book’s concept may seem strikingly familiar: modernist studies has for at least the past two decades turned increasingly to communities as against the ideology of individual geniuses working in isolation. But Pollentier and Wilson breathe fresh air into these investigations by...