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The Trouble with Modernism: Author’s Response


In one of our most popular recent articles Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross held an in depth discussion of our namesake, institutional and anchor and bête noire, modernism. This was followed by important interventions by Nick Hubble and Emma West, who, while agreeing in part with the observations made, suggested some rather different points of departure. Naomi Milthorpe, Robbie Moore, and Eliza Murphy, of the University of Tasmania, join this dialogue in their own answer to the question from an ‘adjacent’ perspective. In this third and final installment of this series, Luke and Michael reflect on Emma and Nick’s observations.

Luke Seaber

To Nick:

I agree very much with most of what Nick says here, and moving on to conceptions of modernity lying beyond modernism is an absolutely vital paradigm shift that we should fight for. I agree too with what Nick says about the marketization of the English and Welsh university system, and deplore it; which said, I worked in the Italian university system for almost a decade [1] , which is extremely far from being marketized in the sense happening in this country, yet the literary canon taught was far narrower and more ‘traditional’ than I can see being returned to here – if on the one hand, marketization pushes towards the ‘safe’ and canonical, on the other I can see it also potentially leading to less traditional texts being studied because they are (rightly or wrongly) seen as more ‘attractive’ to students/customers. The right deed for the wrong reason, we might say. I also have to admit that I’m not overly worried about a potential return to a (very) restricted Modernist canon – if Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound and a handful of others return as if NMS had never been to being the only Modernists, I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing. My problem is if that is accompanied by a valorization of this one small group and an ignoring of that far richer and larger world of texts that Nick describes. In other words, I certainly don’t loathe the idea of Modernism, but I would love to see it become a rather dull technical label rather than the synecdoche for the early twentieth century it has become. This is not to say that there would no longer be the heated debates over who and what is or isn’t Modernist, but that the stakes would be lower, as the debate would involve just one small – important, yes, but far from the whole and only story – part of what was happening in approximately the first half of the twentieth century. Let us fight for fluidity, for the whole rich and varied textual world, then; let us fight for the texts we love. And let unabashedly ‘Modernist’ texts be part of that: how exciting, how fun, it would be to teach The Waste Land alongside Opus 7 on the one hand and alongside The Crooked Hinge on the other…

To Emma:

I very much agree that Michael and I should have mentioned the advantages of interdisciplinarity more – Nick mentions the Space Between Society, which is interdisciplinary and focus on literature and culture 1914-1945, and I should have mentioned just how important this has been both in terms of the development of my research and offeeling there is a scholarly community to which I belong. It can feel very solitary if one feels conflicted about the very existence of the putative raison d’être of the academic community to which one ‘should’ belong; being introduced to the Space Between Society and its annual conference, and the fact that it was full of people discussing literature, interior design, medicine, law, art and a thousand things besides from the years 1914 to 1945 without there ever being felt a need to relate these to Modernism was a revelation and a joy, and the society’s interdisciplinarity is central to there being such an atmosphere. Equally, collaboration outside of academia – amongst all of its other rewards and challenges – offers an often salutary reminder of how something that can appear so important from within academia can vanish the moment one steps outside of it. People interested in let’s say George Orwell and the history of Romford (something I’ve led a guided walk on) have all sorts of interesting ideas to contribute and questions to ask, but (and this is a compliment rather than a criticism) whether not Orwell is (Late) Modernist or not is not amongst them.

Nor should it be: as you say, there are ‘other systems of value at play in different disciplines and different contexts’, and the perspective being aware of this gives us is liberating. Liberating too is being willing to bring the autobiographical – after all, its absence is only a relatively recent feature of what we think of as academic writing. That way, and through interdisciplinarity, lie perhaps the fluidity and freedom we all want. How much any of this applies when contracts expire and job descriptions change, mind you, is another story…

To Naomi et al:

I agree very much with everything said here, and it is salutary to hear voices from ‘academics working at the colonial periphery’ on their ‘isolation from scholarly community’. Such isolation should always be borne in mind, and how its scope is vast, and works both ways. Academically speaking, the centre’s ignorance (whether passive or active) of the periphery hurts both parties, whether those overlooked are scholars in Tasmania, Nigeria, India or elsewhere in the Anglophone world – or, for that matter, outside those countries. By way of example, I’m currently reading a book by a Catalan scholar, Oriol Quintana Rubio, Vostè i George Orwell (2019), which contains some of the most interesting analysis of Coming Up for Air I’ve read – I only happen to know of it because the author had been in contact with me regarding G.K. Chesterton, and sent me a copy. How much scholarship is going on out there on what is considered the periphery that the centre is unaware of? And how much of that unawareness and isolation is due not to questions of language or geographical distance, but of the constraints imposed by the neoliberal university? In other words, it might be profitable in scholarly terms to include scholars from the periphery, and it may also be profitable in institutional terms if one is working on ‘peripheral’ material – Nigerian scholars if one works on Nigerian literature, say – but to include their work when writing on something as ‘central’ as Modernism? Constraints of time and money and energy inherent in the university system as it now exists tend not only, as much of this debate has observed, to limit those texts that we explore to a canonical handful, but also to do the same with the scholarship that we read and use and the scholarly communities with which we are in dialogue.


Michael Shallcross

All three responses to our initial conversation are hugely heartening and productive, and I’m especially glad that each seems to corroborate, in different ways, my tentative hopes for an increased emphasis on horizontal, rather than hierarchical, structures. From Nick’s espousal of ‘fluidity’ over assimilation; to Emma’s exploration of mutually-informing collaborations beyond academia; to Eliza, Naomi, and Robbie, translating enforced disciplinary, geographic, and professional adjacency into a form of critical empowerment; these responses to institutional restriction recall the ingenuity of Victor Shklovsky’s chessboard knight, which ‘moves sideways, because the straight road is forbidden’, but opens up alternative frontiers in the process. [2]

By foregrounding ‘other systems of value’, as Emma puts it, the replies provide a helpful counterbalance to my portion of the initial conversation, which was necessarily focused more on institutional failings than solutions. In this sense, I’m reminded of Coleridge’s famous observation that picking up Henry Fielding after Samuel Richardson was ‘like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves, into an open lawn’. [3] Even if my personal situation ends up more closely resembling the Chief in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, inspired by the freethinking of his fellow inmates to simply smash the window and make a dash for the horizon, it’s galvanising to think that Luke and I have got people talking, and that these constructive dialogues might carry on percolating within the academy.


Sources/Notes

[1] On the subject of Italy, I very much miss being able to describe myself as a primo novecentista, or early-twentieth-centuryist.

[2] Shklovsky qtd. in Sara Pankenier Weld, An Ecology of the Russian Avant-Garde Picturebook (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2018), 210.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1835), 339.

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