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The Trouble with Modernism: a Dialogue

28th June 2019

Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross


In early 2018, Luke Seaber (UCL) took to Twitter to share his suspicion that ‘current Modernist Studies has something of an academic Ponzi scheme about it’. This comment caught the eye of Michael Shallcross (an independent researcher), who contacted Seaber to see if he might be interested in initiating an email exchange on the state of contemporary modernist studies. Seaber and Shallcross are perhaps well-placed to provide semi-detached commentary. They are both scholars of the seemingly anti-modernist figure, G.K. Chesterton, but their research has focused upon Chesterton’s relationships with writers more closely associated with modernism (T.S. Eliot and George Orwell for Seaber; Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound for Shallcross). Similarly, they each occupy a position of relative professional remove: neither has a lectureship in modernism, but each is employed within academia (Seaber is Tutor in Modern European Culture on the international foundation year at UCL; Shallcross works in academic and student support at York).

Their conversation progressed from spring 2018 to summer 2019, and is presented here in edited form. This was a period in which the British Association for Modernist Studies conference, Troublesome Modernisms, began to loom ever-larger on the horizon. With the conference having been conceived partly to reflect on ‘the reverberations of Douglas Mao’s and Rebecca Walkowitz’s groundbreaking Bad Modernisms (2006)’ (as the Call for Papers puts it), Seaber and Shallcross were prompted to consider the ways in which the ‘New Modernist Studies’ has altered the scholarly and professional landscape of early twentieth-century literary studies, and to wonder what might possibly come next. The resulting dialogue explores areas of tension between the intellectual, ethical, and commercial imperatives of modernist scholarship and the professional demands of the modern academy, asking how these disciplinary stresses might manifest themselves within the contemporary job market, and whether alternative scholarly strategies might be established to initiate positive change within an institutional framework increasingly characterised as broken.

Oh trouble can’t you see
You have made me a wreck
Now won’t you leave me in my misery?

Cat Stevens, ‘Trouble’

Uh-oh, we’re in trouble,
Something’s come along and it’s burst our bubble.

Shampoo, ‘Trouble’

Michael Shallcross: My suggestion that we have a conversation about the troublesome world of contemporary modernist studies was inspired by a couple of tweets that you posted, way back on 4 February 2018. In the first, you wrote that ‘[t]he thought has just struck me that current Modernist Studies has something of an academic Ponzi scheme about it’, before explaining that ‘[m]ore scholars of Modernism have to be recruited to create secondary literature and discover texts hitherto not thought of as “Modernist” so those working on Modernism can discuss them. Once it stops growing, it risks collapse’. Notwithstanding this suspicion, you also noted that ‘I feel irritated by my own cynicism’. Could you perhaps enlarge a little on the original impetus for these comments?

Luke Seaber: ‘Ponzi scheme’ I admit is somewhat excessively cynical, but the mechanism strikes me as similar. Academia, in the institutional sense, does seem to require Modernist Studies to take in more and more material hitherto not thought of as ‘modernist’; this isn’t quite the same as saying academics are doing the same thing.[1] There is a lively debate going on, of course, over the validity, importance and relevance of ‘Modernist Studies’ – ‘New’ or otherwise – amongst scholars (Patrick Collier’s [Ball State University] postscript, ‘Against “Modernist Studies”’ to his recent book Modern Print Artefacts, for instance, or the discussions at the plenary session of 2018’s joint Space Between and Feminist inter/Modernist Association conference), but this intellectual discussion can seem unheard and invisible at the institutional level. Modernism often seems omnipresent in terms of what one is expected to teach, in the way jobs are advertised and how one is meant to present oneself in applying for them.     

MS: Your comments definitely struck a chord with my own feelings, which have been bubbling away over the last few years that I’ve spent puzzling out the relationship between G.K. Chesterton and modernism, while trying to make some kind of progress in the academic job market. I’ve occasionally thought back to a remark of Matthew Taunton’s (UEA), from 2013, warning against the critical temptation of ‘seeking to make [Chesterton] safe for the canon by pointing to affinities with literary modernism’.[2]

‘Safe’ is an interesting turn of phrase here. The implication that the Chesterton scholar might benefit professionally from being a kind of aesthetic bomb disposal expert is, I think, suggestive of an under-discussed strain of conservatism at the heart of the ‘New Modernist Studies’. Although that loosely aligned movement has otherwise done so much to invigorate early twentieth-century literary criticism in the last twenty years, it seems to me to reaffirm, and even exacerbate, the underlying disciplinary presumption that has held firm since the New Critical era: that modernist literature is the self-evident aesthetic gold standard of early twentieth-century culture, against which everything else should be measured. Whatever the critical weather, it seems that to be canonical is to be modernist, while to be non-modernist is to be academically unsafe.

In their much-cited article, ‘The New Modernist Studies’ (2008), the movement’s chief initial spokespeople, Douglas Mao (Johns Hopkins University) and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Rutgers University) famously averred that ‘[w]ere one seeking a single word to sum up transformations in modern literary scholarship over the past decade or two, one could do worse than light on expansion’. Although they present this impetus as largely unproblematic, I think the intrinsic value of expansion is at least open to question. Their stated ambition to rehabilitate ‘works by members of marginalized social groups’ often seems to entail hunting down stylistic and thematic traits that might draw such writers into modernism’s gravitational field, in what can look suspiciously like a quasi-imperialistic process of assimilation.[3] Chesterton, the staunch anti-imperialist, would have recognised the pitfalls of this approach more acutely than most. Indeed, your phrase, ‘once it stops growing, it risks collapse’, reminded me of Chesterton’s critique of the British Imperial body politic: ‘When a dead body is rotting, it does not diminish; it swells’.[4]

Chesterton reserved particular criticism for the ‘opportunist cosmopolitanism’ of imperialism, complaining that it appeared to be ‘a rather one-sided affair […] It means that there shall be a Professor of Sloyd Carpentry sent among the Maoris of New Zealand; it does not mean that there shall be a Professor of Tattooing at Oxford or Cambridge’.[5] This bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Laura Winkiel’s (University of Colorado Boulder) recent warning that the New Modernist Studies risks appearing ‘opportunistic’ in displaying an ‘appropriating impulse that “collects” modernisms from around the world and from below to add to Western prestige’. In this way, ‘the label modernism, with its radical aesthetics and formal experimentation, lends a cosmopolitan “cachet” to the newly found global object or contemporary style while also erasing the context of the object or style it describes’.

The context of Winkiel’s comments is a cluster of blog posts on the subject of ‘Modernism’s Contemporary Affects’, convened by David James (University of Birmingham) for the Modernism/modernity Print Plus platform. James’s introductory post draws attention to the reluctance that scholars might experience in articulating any disquiet over the apparently progressive impetus of the New Modernist Studies: ‘whatever the pitfalls of disciplinary enlargement as such, it’s hard to row back from critical expansionism without sounding retrogressive’. Nonetheless, he notes that ‘there’s nothing inherently radical, politically speaking, about advocating modernism’s cartographical or cultural-historical ubiquity’.

One way of interrogating one’s temperamental investments in the stated aims of any movement is to examine their real-world effects. A recent essay by Andrew Goldstone (Rutgers University), ‘Modernist Studies without Modernism’, employs quantitative research to suggest that expansionism might itself be retrogressive. Through analysis of data drawn from relevant journal entries over recent years, he finds that in practical terms, the New Modernist Studies’ ‘ongoing investment in valuing […] objects in modernist terms works to stabilize the definition of modernism, and, in particular, to ensure that the list of dominant modernist authors changes very slowly’. As Goldstone shows, for all the talk of expansion and disruption, the reality of the data is that ‘the same favored writers [remain] at the top of the heap’.

Chesterton was a great questioner of cultural hegemonies (hence, presumably, Gramsci’s admiration of his work) and my research tries to show how he brought this examination to bear upon the earliest phases of modernism’s institutionalisation. So I wonder if his critical methods might also be of value to the contemporary literary scholar trying to navigate a meaningful path through the academic modernism industry. One useful approach might be to emulate Chesterton’s scepticism over the statements that creative artists make about their own cultural location: the typical writer ‘teaches far more by his […] costume, his idiom and technique – all the part of his work, in short, of which he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions’.[6] For this reason, ‘[t]he function of criticism’ is to deal ‘with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part […] which the author himself can express’, even if this means ‘saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots’.[7]

LS: I very much like what Chesterton says here – his work as a critic, as an analyst, is his most exciting, I find, whether of literature or society. Extrapolating – fairly, I hope –  from what he says here, we need to look at the gaps between what authors do and what they say they are doing, and at how readers perceived and perceive both types of statement – the textual and the extratextual. In other words, we need, I think, to pay more attention to paratexts – attributions to authors; blurbs; endpaper biographies – and try to excavate readers’ knowledge of authors. Not just ‘the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express’, but also readers’ conscious and subconscious minds. 

Someone reading both Chesterton and Eliot in the late ’20s, say, would not and could not have had in mind – consciously or otherwise – the same hierarchical relationship between them, however expressed, that a reader of similar social and cultural capital would have now. On one level this is obvious to the point of ridiculousness, but I think it is not said enough, and its implications are left underexplored. That Eliot invited Chesterton to write for the Criterion now looks like Chesterton gaining reflected glory from Eliot, so to speak; to those involved – setting aside Chesterton’s modesty – and to readers at the time, it would have been the other way round.  This surely has or should (there’s that word again…) have implications for how we read those two authors’ works…  

MS: Absolutely, and this brings to mind another interesting twitter thread from last year, which also centred upon shifting power dynamics, both in the past and the present. At the 2018 Birmingham conference, ‘Transitions: Bridging the Victorian-Modernist Divide’, Sarah Parker (Loughborough University) used her keynote, ‘Who’s Afraid of Alice Meynell?’, to ask if her subject might have been ‘responding to the modern, but in a way that is not modernist’. This led Nathan Waddell (University of Birmingham) to comment on twitter that the ‘sheer volume of modernist scholarship can lead, circularly, to its privileging as an explanatory paradigm’; perhaps early twentieth-century literary scholars needed to begin ‘to think beyond modernism as a be-all-and-end-all cultural-historical category’.

This series of reflections caught my attention because Meynell worked collaboratively with Chesterton (they co-edited Samuel Johnson: Extracts from his Writings in 1911). As I mention in my book, Eliot and Ezra Pound both discussed Chesterton and Meynell together in disparaging terms in articles for the Egoist and the Little Review, published within a month of each other in 1918 – Eliot’s criticisms focus on the pair’s alleged lack of professionalism, and stylistic ‘irrelevance’.[8] This looks to me very much like a coordinated attack, conceived as part of the younger authors’ bid to institute their particular strain of ‘high modernism’ as the be-all-and-end-all of early twentieth-century literary endeavour, by presenting figures such as Chesterton and Meynell as rejected cultural antitypes, unworthy of ‘professional’ attention.[9]

With this in mind, I think the question of how to productively discuss figures who placed themselves outside modernism, or were placed in such a position by others, has interesting implications, not least for the critical problem of establishing where exactly (if anywhere) the parameters of modernism might lie. Can figures like Chesterton and Meynell find a legitimate place in a comparative context with modernism, without being forced onto the back foot in the manner warned against by Taunton, and/or becoming subsumed and diluted by the lapping tides of expansion?

LS: This is a good question, and I think an important one, but I wonder how much even posing it is a tacit acceptance of the status quo, or a begging of the question. I think it interesting to map synchronically and diachronically the shifting boundaries of Modernism; it’s valuable scholarly work. What I don’t see, in a scholarly sense (I see it institutionally, of course), is why it’s necessary to do such a thing. You have a number of writers working in the same period. Some of these are doing one thing, some another. These differences, these similarities, may be interesting, but there must be other ways of looking at that period than just in terms of those comparisons. 

I’m being deliberately banal, deliberately simplistic, here: I think the imposed necessity of having to deal with m/Modernism when looking at the early twentieth century falsifies the picture to such an extent that we need to be voluntarily stupid, as it were; we need to have the courage to read and write and think as if we were unaware of the whole debate and just looking at a certain period.[10] Just as ‘Renaissance Studies’ has given way to the less question-begging ‘Early Modern Studies’, so ‘Modernist Studies’ can give way to ‘Early Twentieth Century Studies’ or similar. The problem, of course, is the institutional lag: it’s all well and good my pontificating about what ‘we’ should do, but the reality is that a total refusal to engage with the Modernist Studies paradigm is not the surest path to a career. Again, academia qua scholarship and academia qua institutions are pulling in very different directions here.      

MS: The last point is certainly true of Patrick Collier’s recent work, which you mentioned earlier, but I do wonder if the majority of current scholarship is really departing substantially from the investments of the institution. Winkiel’s blog post draws a persuasive connection between the prevailing research ideology of modernist studies and the institutional context within which it’s set: ‘the appropriative urge can make us appear to be complicit in the neoliberal university that requires fierce competition amongst the many disciplines for scarce resources and necessitates ever-more expansive arguments for our continued relevance’.

As you suggest, the vast majority of lectureships in early twentieth-century literature will go to scholars with a specialism rooted either in canonical modernism or one of its more ideologically progressive satellite colonies. A young scholar entering the present academic job market can’t afford to rock the boat, especially when the boat appears to have a hole in it. Precarity encourages conservatism, and, as Collier reports, if a researcher should find themselves fired up with enthusiasm for ‘an apparently non-modernist artefact […] the new modernist studies offers [only] three paths: (1) ignore it; (2) resign yourself to dissemination in a second-tier journal or the meetings of an ancillary scholarly society; or (3) (most promisingly, in terms of scholarly prestige) find a way to posit it as representing an unacknowledged modernism’.

Back in 2011, Max Brzezinski (formerly Forest Wake) noted that, as with any successful scholarly movement, the New Modernist Studies represented a potentially ‘marketable intellectual commodity’. In this light, it can begin to look suspiciously like a self-perpetuating cottage industry, especially when every scholar of early twentieth-century literature knows that inserting the word ‘modernism’ into a book title is a key marketing strategy, hence the endless procession of ‘Modernism and X’ essay collections and monographs (says the author of a book with ‘Chesterton and Literary Modernism’ in the title).

Of course, at present these imperatives are ultimately bound up with anxieties over disciplinary survival. When the Call for Papers for Troublesome Modernisms states that the conference ‘is interested in the notion of disorder’, I’m tempted to interpret this in the medical sense, as an allusion to the overriding dysfunction at the heart of the modern academy: chronic employment disorder. We’re all involved in a game of musical chairs in which not only are the seats being gradually removed, but new players are continually being introduced. Concurrently, an intellectual and commercial model dedicated to expansion is running headlong into an institutional model predicated upon contraction.[11]

Andrew Kay’s recent, mordant contribution to the burgeoning ‘quit lit’ genre argues that the academy is effectively rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, scrupulously ignoring the ‘extinction event’ on its doorstep. In his performatively jaded account, speakers at the 2019 MLA conference boldly vaunt their ‘intention to “trouble” or “disrupt” the existing paradigm’, while a complacent older generation goes on blithely ‘accepting new PhD students and grooming them for a future that doesn’t exist’.[12] As this suggests, if modernist studies really is akin to a Ponzi scheme, the most offensive aspect is that the fraud is being practiced upon the youngest scholars, whose fresh perspectives are the ones ‘recruited to create secondary literature’, as you put it. To turn to the authority of Wikipedia, a Ponzi scheme will succeed in maintaining ‘the illusion of a sustainable business as long as new investors contribute new funds, and as long as most of the investors do not demand full repayment and still believe in the non-existent assets they are purported to own’. Sounds strangely familiar…

This situation ought to ring alarm bells, given that the New Modernist Studies has been so concerned (admirably, in my view) with focusing scholarly attention on the commercial investments underpinning modernism: it’s not so clear that such scrutiny has been applied to the institutional processes driving the propagation of modernist studies itself. Joyce’s famous pledge to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ suggests a symbiosis favourable to both parties – maintaining writer and scholar in a state of superannuated life support, one might argue.[13] Could it be that a form of death-grip has taken hold between the ascendant theoretical framework of the discipline and the declining institutional framework within which it has to operate? If so, it might be necessary to start challenging this dysfunctional complicity by wielding one of the New Modernist Studies’ own most valuable critical tools – its attentiveness to the influence of ‘vertical’ structures upon often occluded ‘matters of production, dissemination, and reception’.

And this scrutiny should perhaps extend to our own culpability for propping up this state of affairs, given the understandable anxiety that we might feel to satisfy the demands of that mysterious edifice, the academy, which maintains the power to countersign or crush our vocational hopes. In this spirit of self-accounting, how would you say the themes of your own critical work have been informed by the academic milieu in which you produce it? On the face of it, your scholarly interests somewhat evade the temptations that I’ve mentioned, since you often focus on exposing the value of writers operating beyond the framework of modernism, especially those whose academic occlusion might derive from the cultural politics of the genre(s) in which they worked, rather than their geopolitical location, per se. But equally your critical perspective doesn’t seem self-consciously anti-modernist. Is this a valid (series of) interpretation(s)?

LS: I don’t think I’m as much interested in exposing the value of previously occluded writers as I’m uninterested in studying texts without contexts. Or rather: I’m interested in the early twentieth century, and the interwar years in particular, and I’m interested in literature, which is what, more I less, I know how to analyse.  Why then should I limit myself to a selection of authors and texts dictated by anything other than my interests and tastes? But then I’m very lucky – and here we reach the question of the academic milieu and my personal circumstances, things that I think – again, I want to know about the context of texts’ production! – should not be as unmentionable in academic writing as they nearly always are currently. The level to which academic writing obscures the details of its own production I find almost frightening. We all ‘know’ that academics should not allow autobiographical details to intrude into their critical lucubrations; but if we’re interested in how knowledge is produced, then it’s vital that we reconsider this, I think.

So as I say, I’m very lucky: I have a permanent, full-time, university teaching position: I’m not expected to produce any research. Although it’s necessary for promotion (which, cynically translated, means that unless I do something I’m not paid to do, I’m unlikely to be promoted…), its content is of interest to no-one vis-à-vis my working life – so I can research and publish according to what interests me, with my own rhythms and without having to accept any methodology or critical approach I don’t want to. If no university press is interested in the work I’m currently doing on readers’ ability to recognise allusions in the interwar period, it doesn’t actually matter to my ‘career’ right now, because I’m not judged on such things.

MS: I’m trying to subdue my rampaging jealousy… Still, if your situation insulates you to an extent from concern over saying the done thing, I guess mine does too, since I probably wouldn’t be quite so forthright if I hadn’t more or less given up hope of finding an academic post at this point. To respond to your call for more frankness over the autobiographical details of academic production: I currently work 9-5 in university administration to pay the bills, while making glacial progress with researching and writing my second book in the evenings. As such, I can’t afford the time off, or the registration fee, to attend Troublesome Modernisms (although given the ground covered in this conversation, I might have been tempted in any case to follow Peter Cook’s dictum, ‘publish and be absent’).

With this in mind, your point about the obscured contexts of academic production strikes me as central to a range of issues underpinning our discussion, not least the self-reflexive remit of Troublesome Modernisms itself. The conference title purposefully exposes the details of its own production, by answering back to Bad Modernisms (2006), the highly influential Mao and Walkowitz-edited essay collection. I’ve long found the latter title somewhat troublesome in itself, insofar as the savvy of the striking phrase suggests to me not just a comment upon, but also an appropriation of, modernism’s use of ‘badness’ as a sales technique within a commercial market predicated upon titillation. Think of May Sinclair’s review of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) in the Little Review, in which Eliot’s involvement in the second issue of BLAST (1915) is offered up as tantalising proof that ‘Mr. Eliot is dangerous. Mr. Eliot is associated with an unpopular movement and with unpopular people’, his ‘directness of method is startling and upsetting to comfortable, respectable people’.[14]

Perhaps because of his past expertise in manipulating such commercial strategies, the editor of BLAST, Wyndham Lewis, proved adept at exposing the same trait in others in later years. In Men without Art (1934), he describes the cultural landscape of the 1930s as the ‘bad-lands’, arguing that this era possesses a very similar ‘ethos […] to that of the Naughty Nineties’.[15] For Lewis, the fin de siècle had been followed by ‘fourteen humdrum years of Socialist tract-writing – then the war – and then more “naughtiness”’.[16] If the withering repetition of ‘naughty’ hints at the infantilising aspect of an indiscriminate, self-congratulatory fetishising of transgression, this seems to me a particular Achilles heel of academic literary studies, in which the otherwise value-neutral term, ‘radical’, is put to habitual tacit use as a superlative rather than a descriptor.

The Troublesome Modernisms CfP explicitly namechecks Bad Modernisms as a background context, asking how modernism might still be ‘behav[ing] badly’ in our own time. One possible response might be to observe that Lewis’s term, ‘bad-lands’, is calculated not only to suggest lawlessness, but also a landscape rendered inhospitable to productivity by its climatic monoculture. By aggressively stifling alternative potentialities, the academic modernism industry indulges in a kind of disciplinary manspreading, misbehaving not in a puckish, playful sense, but in the stultifying, oppressive manner in which bad behaviour more usually manifests itself.[17] Perhaps what Lewis is trying to get at, once we strip away the usual bad-boy accoutrements of his prose, is that naughtiness offers up a surface radicalism that serves more subtly to reinforce the status quo, by providing the sensation of revolutionary activity without producing any meaningful structural disruption.

In titular terms, Troublesome Modernisms seems alive to these pitfalls, and navigates them by counterbalancing ‘modernism’s capacity to, and for, trouble’, as the CfP puts it. Poised ambiguously between applause for the trouble-making and scrutiny of the troubling, the phrase also manages to convey an abstract sense of the unwieldiness of modernism as a disciplinary term. It’s also pleasing to see the conference programme challenging Goldstone’s findings – canonical figures are kept to a relative minimum, and the huge range of writers up for debate include many whose modernist credentials are far from intuitive – Beatrix Potter and Dorothy L. Sayers, to name just two – though this does once more prompt the question of who on earth might remain unmodernisable at this stage. Such is the quality of the programme, I’m led to the melancholy reflection that early twentieth-century scholarship seems to have reached the peak of its analytic vitality at the very moment when the institutional norms that formerly supported it are collapsing.

So where do we go from here? The conference again seems exercised by this question, acknowledging the weight of recent scholarly precedent while attempting tentatively to progress beyond it, by embracing ‘argumentation, contestation and dissent’ (again from the CfP), with panel titles including ‘Unsettling Modernism’s Boundaries’ and ‘Anti-moderns and Marginal Moderns’. Most promisingly, we’re led to expect ‘scrutiny of the field of modernism from within’, as well as an urge to address ‘how modernisms might not fit with themes or ideals prescribed by modernist studies; and about how works not immediately identifiable as modernist might afford new analyses of the relationship between art, culture and modernity’.

With this remit in mind, it would have been interesting to see Douglas Mao’s quasi-presiding role as a keynote speaker (as well as a panellist, discussing ‘The New Modernist Studies at Twenty’) offset by a dissenting address from a more detached figure like Collier or Goldstone. While it would admittedly be a bit much to expect the British Association for Modernist Studies to collaborate in its own disestablishment, it might have been intriguing to hear more from Goldstone about the potential ‘institutionalization of a plausible alternative’ in the form of ‘a more capacious twentieth-century studies’, which might resituate the collective body of modernism ‘as but one aggregate among many’. Perhaps most appealingly, Goldstone mirrors your interest in ‘the details of [scholarship’s] own production’, arguing that the relative value of any such movement would depend upon the extent to which it was ‘armed with a reflexive knowledge of the social processes of scholarly appreciation’.

Does this proposal sound plausible to you, and if so, how might it work pragmatically?

LS: Again, my response is, I suppose, to argue for a synchronic approach. Certain things were written in 1922 (to choose a year not entirely at random…), certain were published, and certain were read. In other words, ‘matters of production, dissemination, and reception’, which I absolutely agree with as an ideal focus of enquiry – moving away, perhaps, from looking at the meaning of texts and more at the construction of meaning more generally both at points in the past and across time until now.

MS: A synchronic approach could also be helpful in putting the tensions within modernism to productive work. Back in 2001, Susan Stanford Friedman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) outlined a view of ‘modernism as absolute contradiction’, which she thought a potentially more fruitful critical concept than the expansive pluralisation of ‘modernisms’. Friedman’s essay suggests a helpful way of reading modernism not in dialectical, but dialogic terms, replacing the transcendent, imperialist impetus of assimilation (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) with a self-interrogating, spatial metaphor of unresolved ricocheting.[18]

Julia Kristeva explains the dynamic of dialogism as one of ‘relation. It does not strive towards transcendence but rather toward harmony, all the while implying an idea of rupture (of opposition and analogy) as a modality of transformation’.[19] By halting the dialectical process at the irresolution of the antithetic stage, dialogism achieves a critical stance in which, as Rafey Habib, puts it, ‘the object is viewed as mediated: its identity and essence are seen to reside in the diversity of its relations with other objects’.[20] This suggests an accretion of viewpoints engendered by the act of cultural exchange – an expansive movement, but taking the form of a refraction of perspective rather than an assimilation of otherness.

Your book on Chesterton and Orwell seems implicitly to endorse this kind of approach. Orwell stands ambiguously both inside and outside modernism – he’s increasingly drawn into the bracket of ‘late modernism’, as the influence of predecessors like Eliot and Joyce becomes more clearly recognised, but it seems fairly certain that he wouldn’t have willingly self-identified as a modernist. As with my own reading of Eliot and Lewis, you demonstrate that Orwell consistently presented himself as an anti-Chestertonian figure, despite having been profoundly influenced by this apparent representative of the anti-modern. By setting up a comparative dialogue, a sense emerges that Chesterton’s cultural position may be equally protean; the medium of dialogic confrontation becomes potentially revitalising to our understanding of both sides – paying respect to the distinct aesthetic aims and ideological perspectives of each, while exploring the deeper crosscurrents that are often obscured by the ‘elaborate and pompous moral dicta’ that writers erect as a function of their personal and professional self-positioning.

LS: Was Orwell influenced by Joyce? Of course: he was young at the right time and had the ability to get his hands on Ulysses. It should on one level be trivially true, as mathematicians say, and neither require nor deserve demonstrating. Now, it should be equally trivially true that from this, other, more complex, questions of influence can be derived, but I do not see in this any inherent need to refer to Modernism. Orwell is influenced by Dickens: there is no expectation though to draw him into the bracket of ‘late Victorianism’ – which is not to say either that one can’t or that one shouldn’t, merely that one not only needn’t, but also that one can simply ignore the question instead of feeling that one must ‘engage’ with it. 

MS: And one shouldn’t, perhaps, be too sanguine about the level of institutional change achievable simply through adjustments in theoretical viewpoint or methodological approach. Kay’s article mocks the unworldly convolution of an academic at the MLA who posits ‘the pluriversity’ as a systemic fix, in which the scholarly body might learn to ‘exist as a networked decoloniality’. Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that we urgently need to establish a ‘modality of transformation’, in Kristeva’s phrase, to counteract the quasi-imperialistic ‘competition […] for scarce resources and […] continued relevance’ identified by Winkiel. In considering how we might wrest new structures of thought and practice from our professional travails, perhaps there might be genuine value in starting to think more in terms of disruptively collegiate dialogue – disruptive both to our own inherited disciplinary norms, and to the dismal atmosphere of competitive aggression demanded by the wider, self-cannibalising system.[21]

One potential institutional setting for such a rethink might be the ever-expanding field of interdisciplinary studies, which frequently places literary studies on the back foot, much in the manner that I’m suggesting modernist studies does to the rest of early twentieth-century studies. Just as the presence of modernist technique X might boost the scholarly currency of genre writer Y, it often seems that (for example) biomedical or microeconomic contexts must be recruited not just to complement, but implicitly to validate, the study of literature. This subordinate role arises in part from the unequal division of funding, and (relatedly) from longer-standing misgivings over the pragmatic value of literary analysis, which Eliot’s drive toward professionalisation was conceived to remedy, but arguably exacerbated: if the massed ranks of ‘unprofessional’ authors beyond the purview of modernism remain academically unsafe, does this not sap the foundations of the whole discipline?

So perhaps the same horizontal structure of dialogic relation that I’m proposing to apply to our own field might be extended to the interaction of literary studies with other disciplines, as equally valid, mutually informing domains of analytic enquiry. By refusing to collaborate in systems of hierarachisation within our own discipline, we might find ourselves in a stronger position to challenge the cross-disciplinary undervaluation of literary studies within the institution. In short, solidarity is the watchword. To turn once more to Goldstone, perhaps it’s ‘time to fight structure with structure, by defining other ways of organizing the panoply of twentieth-century culture. Instead of worrying about who is on top of the heap, we might build other edifices altogether’.

LS: Exactly. We should perhaps be thinking more about what academic (in both senses) edifices we might build than trying to remodel the artificially ‘necessary’ one in which we too often find ourselves.

MS: In other words, we should… make it new? Now that really would be some trouble worth making.

TMR is allowing a special space in the next 3-4 weeks for responses to this article. Our goal is to build on the discussion about the value, purpose and future of current practice, which Luke and Michael begin here. We will be publishing up to 6 responses to continue this dialogue about what that ‘trouble worth making’ means and might be.

Please send your responses of 1000 words to We look forward to hearing from you.

We are inspired by modernism/Modernity Print + and grateful to Debra Rae Cohen and the editorial board for their discursive approach to scholarship by publishing responses, pursuing conversations and encouraging a communicative dialogue.


[1] I wonder sometimes whether it might not on occasion be useful to distinguish between ‘modernism’, the reaction of authors to modernity and their engagement therewith, and ‘Modernism’, a certain set of formal innovations (or fashions…) and themes within modernism.

[2] Matthew Taunton, ‘Distributism and the City’, in G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity, ed. by Matthew Beaumont and Matthew Ingleby (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 203-28 (p. 204).

[3] Claire Barber-Stetson makes a similar point in ‘Modern Insecurities, or, Living on the Edge’, noting that ‘as scholars of modernism and students of history, we must ask, “When does expansion become colonialism?”’

[4] G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Monstrosity’, Daily News, 11 March 1911, in G.K. Chesterton, G K. Chesterton at the Daily News: Literature, Liberalism and Revolution, 1901-1913, Vol. 2, ed. by Julia Stapleton (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012), p. 88.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Sacred Street’, Daily News 4 June 1904, in Chesterton, Chesterton at the Daily News Vol. 2, p. 238.

[6] G.K. Chesterton, ‘Tolstoy and the Cult of Simplicity’, in G.K. Chesterton, Twelve Types (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1902), pp. 139-66 (p. 147).

[7] G.K. Chesterton, ‘Old Curiosity Shop’, in G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 15: Chesterton on Dickens, ed. by Alzina Stone Dale (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), pp. 271-281 (p. 272).

[8] T.S. Eliot, ‘Professional, or…’, Egoist (April, 1918), p. 61.

[9] On this topic, the recent introduction to the essay collection, Literary and Cultural Responses to Modernism: Unsettling Presences (which, full disclosure, you and I have both contributed to), identifies the ‘tendency of a specific cultural force to dominate and command the literary scene, set its parameters and edge out dissenting voices’.

[10] I realize that here we run into the problem of socio-academic capital, and just who is ‘allowed’ to perform ignorance or naïveté, to which I have no answers.

[11] It’s a testament to BAMS’ admirable support structures and collegiate precepts, as well as the unfortunate reasons why these qualities are so urgently needed, that the conference begins with a set of workshops for ‘PG and EC researchers on writing for non-academic outlets and routes to non-academic careers’.

[12] Unsurprisingly, Kay’s article proved controversial, and later met with a rebuttal, followed by a rebuttal of the rebuttal. All three articles are very much worth reading.

[13] Cited in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 521.

[14] May Sinclair, ‘Prufrock: A Criticism’, Little Review December 1917, pp. 8–14 (pp. 9-10).

[15] Wyndham Lewis, ‘The Bad-Lands (or the Martyrs of the Marsh)’, in Men without Art (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), pp. 172-84 (p. 182).

[16] Ibid.

[17] This isn’t merely an abstract theoretical point – think, for example, of the recent harassment controversy in the world of Joyce studies, in which the corrosive power structures of academic precarity were brought starkly to light. To take a relatively minor example of academic misbehaviour from my own experience, around a decade ago I was interviewed for a PhD studentship by a celebrated figure in the world of modernist studies, whose opening remarks were ‘Jeez Michael, you’re making me feel underdressed here’, because I was wearing a shirt and tie. Having thus established his transgressive credentials at the expense of his interviewee’s equanimity, he went on to adopt the role of bad cop in the interview with rather more gusto than strictly necessary. At one point he told me I was wasting my time studying Chesterton because the propaganda of the US Catholic lobby meant that no-one in academia would ever take him seriously. ‘You’re paddling against the stream’, he observed, with the implication that such a course of action was incomprehensible not only from the perspective of professional advancement, but also scholarly endeavour. I didn’t get the studentship.

[18] Serendipitously, I notice that the most recent issue of the Modernist Review is ‘all about the creative power of contradictions’.

[19] Julia Kristeva, ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. by Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 34-61 (p. 58).

[20] Rafey Habib, The Early T.S. Eliot and Western Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 130.

[21] In a recent, important reply to Barber-Stetson’s essay, Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross argue that ‘the most effective response to the individualizing pressures of academic precarity is […] the development of collective forms of academic subjectivity’. While any movement to institute ‘Collective Research Against Precarity’ might benefit from contriving an alternative acronym, their call to recover the concept of scholarship as ‘collective endeavour’ as a bulwark against the ‘atomizing impulse’ of the market is compelling.’


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