Modernism-Adjacent

Naomi Milthorpe, Robbie Moore, and Eliza Murphy, University of Tasmania

Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross’s dialogue in issue #10 of the Modernist Review, laid out on a table (Prufrock-style) the various anxieties many scholars are beginning to voice about modernism and the New Modernist Studies. These anxieties are laid out by Seaber and Shallcross in spatial terms. The seemingly welcoming and cosmopolitan expansiveness of the New Modernist Studies is shown to be claustrophobic: its ‘quasi-imperialistic process of assimilation’ (or ‘disciplinary manspreading’) threatening to ‘subsum[e] and dilut[e]’ non-modernists under ‘the lapping tides of expansion’ – even as this imperialistic competition for scarce resources compounds an employment crisis in the university sector, with its ‘institutional model predicated upon contraction.’

As scholars based in Tasmania, the spatial politics of the New Modernist Studies are particularly acute for us, and raise some troublesome questions. To what extent does modernism’s ‘quasi-imperialistic […] assimilation’ present, at once, a protection and a problem? Working at a distance from the dominant centres of scholarship, how can we establish professional networks and community when issues such as a lack of institutional funding, intensive teaching loads, insecure work, or the pressures of a timely PhD completion, get in the way? Should we call ourselves modernist scholars to better our chances at an academic career, even if we may feel uneasy or anxious with this label?

In this response to Seaber and Shallcross, we debate the critical potential of the qualifier ‘modernism-adjacent’, and its potential usefulness as a coping strategy for scholars on the margins of modernism. Mostly as a joke, we have been calling ourselves modernism-adjacent to characterise our research as well as our antipodean relationship to dominant centres of scholarship. Then the phrase appeared in Matthew Levay’s (Idaho State University) 2018 review of Latham and Rogers’s New Modernisms series, describing the contingency and indeterminacy of twenty-first-century modernist studies.[1] So it’s now a thing, right?

Why another qualifier when so many already abound? What can modernism-adjacent offer that is different? Existing qualifiers overwhelmingly place their emphasis on the text and the writer: the ideas of recovery and expansion that are central to the New Modernist Studies, bad modernism, planetary modernism, late modernism, to name but a few. These have undoubtedly been a boon for the field in terms of modernism’s growing dominance and vitality within literary studies as a discipline. However, twenty years on from the beginning of the New Modernist Studies—roughly marked by the founding of the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) in 1999—the university as an institution, in Britain and Australia, has changed dramatically. As such, modernism-adjacent asks us to turn our focus away from the object of research to examine the conditions that work to shape this research, something that demands attention in this precarious era for higher education. Our stance chimes with many of the concerns raised by the contributors to this special forum in the Modernist Review. Rather than attempting to smash the canon or subvert ideas surrounding what modernism is (or is not), being modernism-adjacent offers a way to think about our pragmatic and tactical allegiance to modernism as researchers. It continues, we hope, the work of building a community of researchers who are in some way troubled by modernism.

The increasing precarity of academic labour is well established. A 2011 Australian study estimated that around 60% of academic staff in Australian universities were casual, teaching-only staff;[2] more recently, the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) put the figure at 64.8%.[3] As Rosalind Gill (City, University of London) describes, conditions of employment precarity in the neoliberal university give rise to a range of feelings and experiences, largely negative, including ‘exhaustion, chronic stress, shame, anxiety, insecurity, ill health and experiences of intensified surveillance’.[4] As Sianne Ngai (University of Chicago) argues, such negative or ‘ugly’ feelings – we might also add paranoia, persecution mania, envy, and impostor syndrome – arise from a ‘general situation of obstructed agency’ clearly identifiable in the lot of the academic working in what Adorno terms the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity.[5] These feelings can be associated with being at the edge or on the fringe of the institution: adjacent, adjunct. These are further intensified, and parallel, the isolation from scholarly community experienced by academics working at the colonial periphery. Moreover, those studying marginal or minor figures feel regularly compelled to pander to the “disciplinary manspreading” of “the academic modernism industry”, producing the negative feelings that Gill and Ngai describe. We adopt and internalise the modernist gaze, forcing it upon our subjects in hope of professional gain.

Australia, and Tasmania in particular, lacks the population mass to support niche scholarly sub-communities. Consequently, Australian universities offer fewer English courses and hire fewer English staff. Seaber and Shallcross point to modernism as being ‘omnipresent in terms of what one is expected to teach’, but in the Australian context, universities often require staff to teach flexibly well beyond their specialisations. A recent and increasingly typical advertisement for a full-time continuing lecturing position at a top-ranked Australian university, for instance, asked for a PhD in English and teaching experience that showed ‘disciplinary breadth’ as the successful candidate would be teaching generalist courses. Through the very structures of our institutions, therefore, we are placed as scholars into postures of adjacency.

We can see this by comparing the course offerings at Australian and London-based universities. In Australia, according to data from Australian University Heads of English (AUHE), modernism is the single most common period-based course type.[6] Seaber and Shallcross observe that ‘modernist literature is the self-evident aesthetic gold standard […] against which everything else should be measured’, and in Australia this is certainly the case: modernism has become virtually the only frame for teaching early twentieth-century literature and culture. In 2019, 13 Australian universities offered period-based courses which incorporated the early twentieth century. 11 of these universities offered courses which framed this period in terms of ‘modernism’ or ‘modernist’ culture. The only other courses incorporating this period were century-spanning survey courses, offered at two universities. Just one university offered both a modernist course and a survey course; otherwise this period was covered at each university by a single course offering.

The situation in London’s universities is very different. In London, 13 universities offered period-based courses in 2019 which incorporated the early twentieth century. Four institutions only offered courses which framed this period in terms of ‘modernism’ or ‘modernist’ culture. Eight institutions offered modernism courses alongside courses that moved beyond the frame of modernism: including courses called ‘Post-Victorian English Literature’, ‘Literature of the First World War’, ‘Literature and Politics 1910-1938’, and ‘British Fiction of the 1930s’. One institution only offered a course using a non-modernist frame. Most institutions had the capacity to offer more than one course on this period, providing a granularity of historical coverage that is impossible to achieve at the periphery.

What we find in Australian universities is that modernist-adjacent fields get subsumed under the heading of modernism. For instance, ‘Literature and Modernism’ at Monash University considers high modernism alongside regional, middlebrow, popular, and postwar literature. Our ‘Modernism’ course at the University of Tasmania takes in a broad sweep of early twentieth-century culture, high and low, including Hollywood cinema and writers with fraught or combative relations with avant-gardism. Australian modernism courses tend toward hybridity, pulling at the edges of traditional periodisation; yet most Australian courses are stamped with a traditional period signifier, giving them a legible identity. Such signifiers exert an outsized influence on scholarly and pedagogical activity, yet allegiance to those signifiers is weaker, and more pragmatic.

The term ‘modernism’ functions in the Australian scholarly ecosystem, therefore, as a ‘mobile and tactical signifier’, in Matthew Kirschenbaum’s (University of Maryland) words.[7] This idea is drawn from Kirschenbaum’s discussion of the term ‘digital humanities’, which he argues is a means of attractively packaging and promoting a disparate set of scholarly practices. Digital humanities, Kirschenbaum claims, is a term ‘possessed of enough currency and escape velocity to penetrate layers of administrative strata to get funds allocated, initiatives underway, and plans set in motion.’[8] Kirschenbaum emphasises that this is not to dismiss the value of the work being done in the digital humanities, but rather to show how the rhetoric surrounding the digital humanities is capable of working the levers of the neoliberal university. In similar ways, we contend that the term ‘modernism’ is a means of packing and promoting a disparate set of scholarly practices, writers and texts. Modernism, freighted with cultural and institutional capital, offers opportunities for branding, finding networks (both online and offline), and accessing resources, as both Nick Hubble and Emma West gestured to in their responses. As Seaber and Shallcross assert, for scholars at the periphery or in a position of precarity, labelling your work as modernist can be a tactical manoeuvre to shore up your identity. Modernism is a sort of scholarly shorthand, able to smooth out the fuzzy, uncomfortable, and ill-fitting parts of our research.

Being modernism-adjacent offers a means to engage with a field that, for those on the fringes – whether geographical, tenure/non-tenure, or whose work focuses on ‘canonically minor’[9] or marginal texts – sometimes produces uneasy feelings. The jokiness of modernism-adjacent is ideal for describing forms of provisional, pragmatic, and tactical allegiance to the colonial metropole, driven by scholars seeking institutional support and scholarly recognition under precarious conditions.

‘Adjacent’ is a specifically spatial term, denoting next-to-ness, neighbouringness; but in its origin in the Latin iacere, to lie down, also invokes horizontality and recumbency (to borrow from Louise Hornby’s [University of California, Los Angeles] recent work on tiredness)[10], prone-ness, and thus vulnerability. In affixing the qualifier ‘adjacent,’ we simultaneously name our vulnerability and gird against this vulnerability using the irony which, as Ngai comments, is frequently produced with (or brings rhetorical form to) our dysphoria.[11] To bring another voice to this strategy, David Sherman (Brandeis University) comments in response to the ‘Weak Theory, Weak Modernism’ special issue of Modernism/modernity that ‘[c]omedy is a way for those without sufficient institutional power to imagine affective solidarity, shared pleasure, survival for another few days, […] and other modes of not quite losing.[12]

Modernism-adjacent offers a kind of protective talisman by aligning the poorly-fitting, contingent, and in-between with the umbrella-term ‘modernism’. But as a joke term it also moves against itself, exposing our discomfort and marginality as scholars at modernism’s edge.

Like West, we look forward to hearing from other researchers on their troubled relationships with modernism, particularly concerning issues surrounding precarity. Aarthi Vadde (Duke University) and Melanie Micir (Washington University in St. Louis) recently described para-academic spaces such as Twitter, blog posts, and ‘quit lit’ (we could also add the Modernist Review, given its ethos of supporting postgraduate and early career researchers) as ‘the vanguard critical genres of our most fragile profession’. With such high levels of insecure employment, these marginal spaces are now ‘the frontlines’.[13] While the discussions in this forum may be adjacent to our research, the issues they raise are wholly central to how we are able to occupy and use our time as researchers.


Sources

[1] Matthew Levay, review of New Modernisms series (2015–), Modernism/modernity Print Plus, 2018. <https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/bloomsbury%E2%80%99s-new-modernisms&gt;

[2] Robyn May and others, ‘The Casual Approach to University Teaching: Time for a Re-Think?’, Research and Development in Higher Education, 34 (2011), 188–197. <http://www.herdsa.org.au/system/files/HERDSA_2011_May.PDF&gt;

[3] Paul Kniest, ‘The Flood of Insecure Employment at Australian Universities’, National Tertiary Education Union, 2018, 1–43 (p. 5). <https://www.nteu.org.au/library/download/id/8988&gt;

[4] Rosalind Gill, ‘Academics, Cultural Workers and Critical Labour Studies’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 7.1 (2014), 12–30 (p. 13). <https://doi.org/10.1080/17530350.2013.861763&gt;

[5] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 13; Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. and trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 31.

[6] Matt McGuire and Adam Daniel, ‘State of the Discipline in 2018: Report on the Australian University Heads of English Survey’, Australian University Heads of English, 2018, 1–16 (p. 8). <http://auhe.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/AUHE-State-of-the-Discipline-Report-2018.docx&gt;

[7] Matthew Kirschenbaum, ‘Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term’, in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. by Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), pp. 415–28 (p. 421).

[8] Kirschenbaum, p. 417.

[9] Ngai, p. 11.

[10] Louise Hornby, ‘Downwrong: The Pose of Tiredness’, MFS, 65.1 (2019), 207–27. <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/720560&gt;

[11] Ngai, pp. 9–10.

[12] David Sherman, ‘Chaplin Boxing’, Modernism/modernity Print Plus, 2019. <https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/responses-special-issue-weak-theory-part-i&gt;

[13] Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir, ‘Weak Theory in the Mainly Precarious Room’, Modernism/modernity Print Plus, 2019. <https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/responses-responses-special-issue-weak-theory&gt;

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