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The Trouble With Modernism: Responses

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

Michael Shallcross, ‘The Trouble with Modernism: A Dialogue’

Issue #10 of the Modernist Review saw Michael Shallcross and Luke Seaber enter into a dialogue about the current status of modernist studies. They discussed the ways in which the ‘New Modernist studies’ has changed the study of modernism, the professional demands of the modern academy, and where it might go from here. Inspired by Modernism/modernity and their commitment to facilitating scholarly conversations on their print+ platform, TMR is delighted to publish two responses to ‘The Trouble With Modernism: A Dialogue’. We hope to continue this important dialogue about the direction and scope of our current practice, opening up a discursive space for discussion. 

Michael and Luke will be replying to these responses in a special article to be published on 8th August.

With thanks, 

Gareth, Cècile, Polly and Séan

After Modernist Studies, Beyond Modernism

Nick Hubble, Brunel University 

Reading Michael Shallcross and Luke Seaber’s discussion of the various problems with modernist studies in relation to the institutional functioning of academia reminded me of my own post-PhD search for a job at the beginning of this century (in what were, with the benefit of hindsight, happier circumstances than today). I too was upset by departments’ inexplicable preference for the scholars of canonical modernists over people who wrote about obviously more interesting stuff like Mass-Observation. I too failed to get a post in the period of my research specialism but I did eventually get a permanent job at Brunel – following a spell in the suitably marginal field of Suburban Studies – as a post-1945 contemporary specialist. I had no idea at all of the existence of the New Modernist Studies and it was only through getting lumped with the task of organising the (then peripatetic) annual Literary London conference due to take place at Brunel in my first year, and inviting the only international scholar I knew, Kristin Bluemel, to give the keynote, that I found out about it. For Kristin’s keynote was a dry run for the introduction to Intermodernism, a volume I ended up contributing to, and contained references to the NMS which I followed up. Subsequently, I went to the Space Between Society conference in 2011 and then the 2012 MSA in Las Vegas, to participate on a panel organised by Kristin, giving a paper that eventually ended up as a contribution to Kristin and Michael McCluskey’s Rural Modernity. Also as noted in the acknowledgments to my The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, it was at the Vegas MSA business lunch that Debra Rae Cohen advised me to keep that title even if the publishers suggested alternatives (and thus the world was spared another ‘and Modernism’ book). So, I have a personal history with the NMS which has worked out really well for me because – as with many others – it has allowed me to bend modernism to my own interests. Although, of course, my modernism may not be yours.  

According to my worldview, the handful of texts which used to define the canon of high modernism are largely an unrepresentative minority of a much wider trend comprising not only the entry of the unconscious, in the form of women’s and working-class men’s voices and perspectives, into history (a process begun at the end of the nineteenth century), but also the continual and fluid interplay of intersubjective experience and material reality that constitutes the fabric of everyday life. By making everyday life the ground of the text, the subjectivity and intersubjectivity of the masses become the subjects of literature in place of the limited perspectives of bourgeois men and women. The high modernists whom we value the most today, such as Woolf and Joyce, were the most alive to this paradigmatic social change. Therefore, my interpretation is that the incredibly wide expansion of texts treated as modernism within the NMS will have been a welcome and necessary step towards rethinking the literary, cultural and social developments of the first half of the twentieth century when categories such as ‘proletarian modernism’, ‘autobiografiction’ (as written about by Max Saunders) and more generally working-class, lower-middle-class and women’s writing are seen as the central developments. However, much as I would like to think it has, this change hasn’t happened yet. Nor, is it likely to on the current trajectory.

Luke was being polemical when he described modernist studies as a Ponzi scheme but it is, like all humanities scholarship, dependent on the maintenance of a market which is subject to the rise and fall of confidence. And, in the British context at least, market confidence in our field is down, irrespective of whether Brexit can be averted, with a declining trend in sixth-formers taking English Literature ‘A’ level. The marketization of the English and Welsh university system since 2012, the tyranny of metric-based league tables and the onset of the TEF are poised to wreak havoc (in some cases, this has begun) for all but the large research-intensive English departments (and they won’t remain unchanged either) once the current REF cycle ends next year. This is not to say that academic life as we have known it will necessarily disappear overnight but the pressures of recent years will be intensified. Economic causes will have cultural consequences: there will be increased calls to ‘return the canon’. It is not difficult to imagine the category of modernism becoming once more restricted to the men of 1914 and Woolf. There are plenty of English academics in the university sector who, untouched by the NMS, still believe this to be the case anyway. There are also plenty of people around who loathe the very idea of modernism. For example, I was once involved in a collection for which the editors found it necessary to issue a firm injunction against contributors being negative about modernism (which involved me in a lengthy email exchange about my use of the term ‘actually-existing modernism’). More recently, I was at an event where the audience were ‘asked’ (i.e. instructed) to show hands agreeing Walter Greenwood was definitely not a modernist (there was an implication that these self-evidently irreconcilable positions could be readily situated on a Blair-Corbyn axis). It is obvious that the current all-encompassing approach of the NMS can’t hold much longer. My dreams of fluidity are in danger of being forced back into the most sterile of binary divides.

So, to frame a question, what is to be done? I feel like the hobbit trying to decide which hill to die on during the Battle of Five Armies. But if I have to make a last stand then it will be with those like Patrick Collier who are arguing ‘against modernist studies’. It’s time to move on to a different paradigm of study and to more democratic conceptions of modernity that lie beyond modernism. The texts we love will survive this paradigm shift.

Me, Modernism and I

Emma West, University of Birmingham

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.

Luke Seaber, ‘The Trouble with Modernism: A Dialogue’

I recently drew up a list of pros and cons for including the word ‘modernist’ in the title of my first monograph. In the cons column, underneath ‘might be more difficult to get a job’, was ‘moving away from the modernist studies community’. Intellectually, I don’t want my project to be hamstrung by the narrow confines of modernism. I don’t want to have to reject case studies because they’re not quite ‘modernist’ enough, or to participate in what Michael Shallcross calls the ‘quasi-imperialist process of assimilation’ inherent to modernist studies. I want the freedom to pursue ideas, examples, people, institutions that intrigue me, no matter where they fit on the cultural spectrum. And yet making that leap outside the modernist studies community – a community in which I’ve felt welcome and valued my entire academic career – is terrifying. If I’m not a modernist, what (or who) am I? Where would I publish? What events would I go to? How would I describe myself? 

As Seaber and Shallcross point out, there are possibilities both in the idea of a more neutral and inclusive temporally-organised field (‘Early Twentieth Century Studies’) and in truly equal, interdisciplinary collaborations. Both of these strands coalesce in groups like the 20s30s Network, co-ordinated by the architectural historian Elizabeth Darling (Oxford Brookes) and the cultural historians Matt Houlbrook (Birmingham) and Richard Hornsey (Nottingham). Last year’s workshop on ‘Publics’ brought together cultural, social, film, art, design, architectural and literary historians for a refreshing and genuinely collaborative series of discussions. The ‘M’ word barely got mentioned at all. This is one of the benefits of interdisciplinarity that Shallcross and Seaber overlook: when you work with scholars from across the humanities – art and design historians, cultural and social historians, musicologists, architects, lawyers, colleagues in modern languages, colleagues in literature who work on different time periods – you discover how little modernism matters. It is harder to feel hemmed in by the demands of modernist studies when your colleagues work within different critical frameworks. 

A similar process occurs when you collaborate outside academia. Working with the artists organisation Gentle/Radical and the Heritage Lottery-funded project Wales for Peace on a project about the Temple of Peace, it quickly became clear that modernism was not the most interesting story we could tell about this building. Collaborators and audiences alike were more interested in the story of Minnie James, the 72-year-old woman dubbed ‘Wales’s Most Tragic Mother’ who lost 3 sons in the First World War and was invited to open the Temple. They were interested in the thousands of people who came on pilgrimages to the building to pledge themselves to the causes of peace, justice and health. They were even, once I got up the courage to admit that I was a human person, interested in the fact that I got married in the Temple in 2014 and fell in love with it when searching for a wedding venue.   

This is not to dismiss modernist scholarship as worthless, or to say that modernism can never interest a broad audience. To do so would be to replicate exactly the kind of hierarchy that Seaber, Shallcross and I seek to critique. Rather, I offer these personal experiences to highlight other systems of value at play in different disciplines and different contexts. This perspective is useful. It reminds us that changing or adding to our understanding of modernism is not the only way of justifying our work. To paraphrase Patrick Collier, our ‘object of knowledge’ does not always have to be modernism or modernist studies.

It has taken me a long time to build up the confidence to argue the value of my work without recourse to modernism. For several months, I have been at a crossroads in my current project, deciding between a modernist studies monograph on how committees shaped British modernism and a more public-facing book exploring efforts to bring ‘art to the people’ in modern Britain. Even though I knew that I really wanted to write the latter (at the bottom of the pros list was a small point, added almost as if an afterthought: ‘It excites me more’), I still felt that I needed some kind of permission from my (modernist) colleagues. At a Centre for Modernist Cultures work-in-progress session, colleagues unanimously supported the non-modernist option: having this reassurance from friends and colleagues, some of whom (David James and Alexandra Harris) have themselves moved in and out of modernist studies across their careers, was more valuable than I can articulate. 

We need more of this. Seaber and Shallcross’s conversation made me feel less alone in my messy, conflicted, shifting relationship with modernist studies. At our recent Modernist Art Writing conference, we heard several creative-critical interventions from artists, writers and critics unafraid to bring autobiography, memoir, emotion into their work; as I write I am reading (or more accurately revelling in) Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. There are some excellent models published on the Modernism/modernity Print + platform, particularly the personal reflections on modernist studies and our place within it by Lesley Wheeler et al., Sean Richardson, Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross, among others. Let’s learn from them and write about our own troubled relationships with modernism. Only then can other ways of working seem possible; only then can other communities be formed. 

And yes, I say this as a postdoctoral fellow with freedom to research what I want and, aside from my one vaguely modernist REF article, publish what I want. 

Ask me when my contract expires if I’m still feeling so brave.   


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