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The Modernist Review Issue #10: Troublesome Modernisms

The Modernist Review is a magazine which wears its heart on its sleeve when it comes to the use of that troublesome word. Like its parent association the British Association of Modernist Studies, its title commits it to the interrogation and exploration of a cultural phenomenon which has been discursively constructed since its origin. Unlike a ‘movement’ with a concrete set of personnel and aims, such as suffragism or even futurism, ‘modernism’ has always been multi-faceted and loose, its conditions and qualities contested from its inception. Its dominance as a cultural descriptor of strands in Twentieth Century writing and art has oscillated, its fate linked to its terminological adoption by institutions. Examples of this latter fact are increasingly common as empirical archival work plays an ever-larger role in contemporary criticism: the conjoining of method and canon by F. R. Leavis et al. in the pages of Scrutiny; the association, by publisher John Calder, of Wyndham Lewis and Samuel Beckett as opposite temporal ends of a continuous stream; the coining of the term ‘New Modernist Studies’ by academics in a position of considerable influence and status through the editorial apparatus of an institutionally-supported academic journal. It is therefore not priestly navel-gazing or a weakness for arcane nomenclatorial bickering that leads us to focus on the trouble of this word. We are still very close to modernism by historical standards, and its skull still chatters away in the ossuary.

This month’s issue was directly inspired by the BAMS 2019 conference Troublesome Modernisms, brilliantly organised by the BAMS committee. The conference was designed to reflect on what modernist studies have become in the past ten years, but also to take account of the trouble that our proximity to modernism still causes. In the words of Ruth Clemens, who first got the idea for the theme, ‘this started with a feeling – a feeling that we are in trouble’. Keynotes Douglas Mao (Johns Hopkins) and Isabel Waidner (Roehampton) offered us two different ways of responding to this troubled feeling by upsetting and re-building the canon. For PGRs, the trouble started early on Thursday with two workshops, inviting a collective reflection first on mental health and the teaching of emotionally difficult texts in 21st century classrooms, then on CV-building to navigate the troubled seas of the academic and non-academic job markets. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the discussion. We hope that you feel energised to keep this conversation going, in your reading life, personal work and future collective ventures. Thanks to some helpful coverage of the conference from certain delegates via the #troublesomemodernisms hashtag, a search on twitter will reveal some excellent mini-write ups of the panels, for those who want to get in touch with individual researchers about their work.

Stemming from the conference, this issue features a very meta “modernist review” of the Modernist Revue by Josh Phillips, detailing the evening of dance, music and poetry that showcased a reading of Hope Mirrlees’s ‘Paris: A Poem’, among other salon-style performances. The other three contributions this month focus on a modernism that is troublesome in method, form and content. J. D. McAillister’s review of Flann O’ Brien: Problems with Authority highlights the ‘grey canon’ of Brian O’ Nolan, a particularly difficult archive to transverse due to his penchant for pseudonyms and capricious performativity. Marie Allitt discusses the late modernist Leonora Carrington, and how the readability of her novel Down Below is due to a style where ‘fact blurs with fiction, and is further obscured by hallucinations’. James Baxter’s analysis of the deployment of Samuel Beckett as a late/post-modernist author par excellence became enmeshed in a bizarre high art/pop culture media hybrid in The Evergreen Review, where ’pornographic visuality and vociferous titillation radically unsettle the boundaries of modernism’s post-war legacies.’

We are also excited to include a slightly different article this month, in the form of a dialogue. ‘The Trouble With Modernism’ is a discussion between Michael Shallcross and Luke Seaber, which contemplates the current status of modernist studies, and by way of proxy, the ‘status’ of modernism. Rather than attempt to summarise it here, we strongly encourage you to read it for yourselves, in the hope it may provoke, surprise and amuse in an appropriate early Twentieth Century manner. For this article, we will be allowing a special space in the next 3-4 weeks for replies. Our goal is to build on the interesting and important discussion which Luke and Michael begin by publishing up to 6 responses, of 1,000 words each, in order to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about the value, scope and purpose of current practice. We are grateful for our transatlantic comrades at modernism/Modernity Print + for leading the way in re-establishing the discursive mode of scholarly work after a long period dominated by book followed by review and article followed by citation. Just as a discursive environment, In Michael Warner’s sense, allowed for the creation of something resembling a modernist public, we hope this chain of communication can do the same for the modernist studies public.

We hope you enjoy this month’s offering. As always, we thank our readers and contributors for their support of TMR and warmly encourage enquiries about future articles, as well as responses  to ‘The Trouble with Modernism’. Please email the team at info@bams.ac.uk.

Gareth, Cécile, Séan and Polly

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