The Trouble with Modernism: a Dialogue Continued

15 September 2020

In 2019, the Modernist Review published a dialogue on the state of Modernist Studies in several instalments, taking as its namesake the title of BAMS’ own conference: Troublesome Modernisms. It began (as so many things do) with a series of tweets in 2018 from Luke Seaber (UCL) who conjectured that ‘current Modernist Studies has something of an academic Ponzi scheme about it’. This sparked a dialogue between he and an independent researcher, Michael Shallcross, about the ‘New Modernist Studies’ and the professional demands of the modern academy. We published responses to this dialogue by Nick Hubble (Brunel University), who believed that ‘it’s time to move…to more democratic conceptions of modernity that lie beyond modernism’, and Emma West (University of Birmingham), whose own encounters with troublesome modernism found her ‘draw[ing] up a pros and cons list for including the word “modernist” in the title of [her] first monograph’. Naomi Milthorpe, Robbie Moore and Eliza Murphy intervened with their own reflections on being Modernism-Adjacent at the University of Tasmania, where ‘the spatial politics of the New Modernist Studies are particularly acute’. Luke and Michael reflected on both of these thoughtful interventions in their own final responses.

In his dialogue contribution, Nick recounted his experience as an ECR in the early 2000s organising the Literary London conference and ‘inviting the only international scholar [he] knew, Kristin Bluemel, to give the keynote’. The keynote was the ‘dry run’ to Kristin’s edited collection, Intermodernism (2009), to which Nick contributed, as well as contributing to Kristin and Michael McCluskey’s Rural Modernity in Britain (2018). We are excited today to publish Kristin’s own reflection on the trouble with modernism, how the current state of Modernist Studies impacted the publication process of this volume, and advice to newly minted PhDs navigating the academic job market.

Vegetable Careers or, Beating Mr. McGregor at His Own Game

Kristin Bluemel, Monmouth University

There is a lively debate going on, of course, over the validity, importance and relevance of ‘Modernist Studies’ – ‘New’ or otherwise – . . .  but this intellectual discussion can seem unheard and invisible at the institutional level. 

Luke Seaber, “The Trouble with Modernism: A Dialogue”

It’s also pleasing to see [in] the [June 2019 BAMS] conference programme . . . the huge range of writers up for debate includ[ing] 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.

Michael Shallcross, “The Trouble with Modernism: A Dialogue”

Just over a year ago, in late June 2019 when people could still meet and talk face to face, I presented a paper on Beatrix Potter at the BAMS “Troublesome Modernisms” conference. I had a great time at the conference but wondered if I was being hypocritical in presenting this particular research at this particular venue. There is no intellectual or institutional context in which Potter could be considered modernist, and while my paper did not pretend otherwise,  wasn’t I implicitly contributing to the problem of modernist overreach that Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross mention in their “Trouble with Modernism” dialogue? After all, theirs is a variation on the kind of critique I’d been advancing for years, most publicly when I joined Patrick Collier as a participant on his notorious “Against Modernist Studies” roundtable at MSA 2016. There I admitted that “My problem with modernism as a term defining parameters of a field of cultural study is that its emphasis on newness—whether “make it new” or “the new modernist studies”—has effectively blinded critics to the ways ‘old arts’ of the early twentieth-century may be just as engaged with modernity as the modernist arts. What I think of as the ideology of modernism has made it difficult if not impossible to study various arts of modernity on their own terms; certainly this has been my experience during my studies of early 20th-century children’s literature [and] book illustration.” I went on to discuss the ways my research on four very “unmodernisable” British women wood engravers and children’s book illustrators had turned up unfortunate intellectual resistances among my modernist readers — resistance to interdisciplinary scholarship, to scholarship on reproductive arts (e.g., printing vs. the aura art of painting), to scholarship on women artists, to scholarship on children’s literature, and to scholarship on an “old” art like white line wood engraving that is associated in readers’ imaginations with rural scenes. It is this last resistance that proved most entrenched, most unexpected, and thus most fascinating. My research suggested that interwar women wood engravers were gender dissidents, working at the cutting edge of modern print technologies and economies, forming a historically unprecedented group of self-supporting professional women artists. Yet I could not manoeuvre around my readers’ rural essentialism: wood engravings meant country scenes, country scenes meant nostalgia, nostalgia meant conservatism and conservatism meant just about anything but avant-garde modernism. 

After repeated encounters with this kind of rural essentialism, which, to be fair, I also encountered among art historian and children’s literature expert readers, I concluded that I needed to put aside my work on British women wood engravers and set out, with MSA member Michael McCluskey, to create a theoretical context that would make sense of my wood engraving case studies. The result was an interdisciplinary, co-edited volume of essays titled Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention (to which Nick Hubble, participant in this dialogue, contributed a chapter on Lewis Grassic Gibbon). The chapters in this book argue that the rural means more than a retreat from the consequences of modernity; rather, the rural emerges as a source for new versions of the modern. It was this version of rural modern to which I recruited Beatrix Potter and her little books when I sat down to write that 2019 BAMS paper.

But here was another dilemma. I had been invited by Jamie Callison and Jane de Gay to join their panel “In/On Retreat: Religion, Reflection and the Public Sphere,” yet I found myself writing an anti-retreat rural literature paper for a retreat panel while focusing on an acutely anti-modernist artist at a modernist conference. Potter functioned as a kind of limit test for troubled modernist inclusion because the myths surrounding her person and art would invite all the resistances I mention above: her illustrated books are intermedial, interdisciplinary forms, created by a woman artist for a mass market using reproductive technologies. Measuring around 4 ½ x 5 ¾ inches, they were destined for Britain’s least discerning of readers, very young children, who delighted in Potter’s anthropomorphized animals, all of whom pursue everyday adventures amid rural Cumbrian landscapes. Predictably, preparing this limit test landed me right in the middle of the internal debate that Emma West describes in her contribution to this “Dialogue”: Should I or should I not present and publish under the modernist banner? For Emma, this question leads to the more pressing and personal one: “If I’m not a modernist, what (or who) am I?” 

My changing relationship to modernism and modernist studies suggests that the scholarship of modern (not modernist) inbetweenness is the more exciting but more professionally risky of possible institutional commitments and identities. My scholarly ventures have always been feminist ones, so to that extent they have been prickly, outsider enterprises. But when I was right out of grad school, working on Dorothy Richardson, at least I knew who I was, what events to go to, how to describe myself (again, to cite Emma West). My more recent interdisciplinary work on popular women artists and illustrators extends this early work to diverse intellectual communities whose responses do indeed suggest “how little modernism matters.” However, that little bit of modernist mattering is very important to expert readers who encounter scholarship on, say, interwar women wood engravers or interwar illustrated children’s books (worse yet, women wood engravers of interwar children’s books) in the context of publishers’ modernist branding. Publication of the contrarian Rural Modernity in Britain demonstrates that interdisciplinary, feminist, rural-focused scholarship can come into print. However, in my version of the story of that book, the unpublished, behind the scenes evidence of readers’ reports and the remarkably few book reviews post-publication reveal persistent institutional barriers and biases against non-elite, non-metropolitan arts and cultures in modernist (literary) studies. This is to be expected. Less expected, perhaps, is the way these metropolitan biases function as biases against women artists and art.

Our anonymous expert readers’ criticism of our theorizations of rural modernity ignored the way this theory emerged in part out of critical engagements with women’s arts, women artists’ experiences, and the historical conditions of those gendered arts’ production, distribution, and consumption. Perhaps the best example of the misalignment between our volume’s commitments to an alternative modernity and our readers’ desires for a volume on establishment modernism is evident in one reader’s urging that we better define rural modernity – a perfectly reasonable demand —  in order to ensure “the book . . . come[s] across as a distinct and valuable intervention in modernist studies.” We replied to our publisher, “Setting aside for a moment the question of how we are defining rural modernity, it is important to note that we never proposed this collection as an intervention in modernist studies, which is a subfield within the larger cultural field of twentieth-century studies. We contend that modernity is not limited to modernism. This assumption underlies the work of all the chapters in the volume; it is a ground or foundation for the critical work undertaken.” In our revised book proposal we defended the choices of our contributors to speak back to a discourse of modernism from (sexed, gendered, classed, geographical) positions outside of that discourse. We wrote, “After all, some of us have for years been challenging the dominant discourse of literary modernism from the peripheral standpoints of feminist, cultural, and non-literary studies. The endurance of scholarly societies like the Space Between Society (founded before the MSA in 1997) or creation of a new scholarly society like the Feminist inter/Modernist Association (founded years after the MSA in 2015) is testament to the continued need for alternative, non-mainstream-modernist approaches to study of twentieth-century culture.” Mention of our alliances with and debts to the Space Between and FiMA led us to conclude our reply to our readers with this feminist point:

It is somewhat disappointing that neither [expert] reader commented on the value of having a book organized in part around chapters about women as agents and subjects of modernity, written by women and feminist scholars. . . . These are readers who often do not find their concerns or questions addressed in high profile studies of modernism and who are eager to read books that take into account alternative ways of knowing, making, and living in the twentieth century.  

I stand by this affirmation of scholarship that advances alternative ways of knowing, making, and living in the twentieth century. But I would urge any newly minted PhD eager to find and keep an academic position to heed Luke Seaber’s cautionary observation: “There is a lively debate going on, of course, over the validity, importance and relevance of ‘Modernist Studies’ – ‘New’ or otherwise – . . .  but this intellectual discussion can seem unheard and invisible at the institutional level.” In the current climate of academic scarcity and precarity, I’d say be a modernist first. Or better yet, be a modernist also (the “. . . and Modernism” formula) but not because you can find life-fulfilment only in a tenured position as a scholar and teacher of modernism. As we all know, no one is advertising for modernists. However, they are and will continue to advertise for and hire (often local) university and college teachers who can do a variety of things like teach first year composition, including digital composition, general education literature and humanities courses, British and American and World literature surveys, upper-level period, genre, and theory classes for English and Education majors. Publishing articles or books of the “. . and Modernism” stripe is wise because there are multiple, clearly marked publication paths for those who want to pursue them. And publication, rather than publication on modernism, permits you to speak the institutional language that hiring committees can understand when applicants for positions both contingent and permanent are likely to include Victorianists and Medievalists and digital humanists and rhetoricians and novelists. At grim moments of professional reflection, I would say that you are not faced with a question of why or how to enter that lively debate about the validity, importance, and relevance of ‘Modernist Studies’ but when: once you are employed in an academic position with health benefits. Then you can pursue what Patrick Collier describes, tongue only slightly in cheek, as the second path laid down by the new modernist studies: “resign yourself to dissemination in a second-tier journal or the meetings of an ancillary scholarly society.” From the perspective of someone well on the other side of tenure, working at a second (or maybe third) tier university, my only revision to Patrick’s description would be to replace the words “resign yourself to” with the single word “embrace.”


We hope to continue this important dialogue about the direction and scope of our current practice, opening up a discursive space for discussion. If you would like to talk to us about submitting your own contribution to this dialogue, please email tmr@bams.ac.uk. We particularly welcome contributions and queries from BAME members of our community. We look forward to hearing from you!

Best wishes,

Polly, Bryony, Josh & Cécile

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