There are plenty of reasons one might dread the coming of the year 2022. As a scholar of modernist literature and culture, I derive a particular form of professional dread at the prospect of the commemorative panels and Daily Telegraph articles celebrating the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. April, 2022 will be an especially dreadful month in this respect. Elsewhere in the world, 2022 will be ruining Trilce for Peruvians, and centennialists may flock to a spate of delusive Blooms-century events in Dublin, brought to you by an overeager International James Joyce Foundation.

I’ve been growing weary of this scenario since 2009, when Italian Futurism got hot and then cold again awfully fast. And again in 2010, the centenary of the year in which everything changed, according to Virginia Woolf. And 2014, with its wave of World War I commemorations. New Directions issues a centennial edition of Ezra Pound’s Cathay this fall. Important though it was, this slender chapbook—originally published in modest brown wraps—makes a dubious inductee into the “monumental” logic of centenaries. Likewise dubious is FSG's spate of commemorative reissues for the 1914 birth of John Berryman. “The anniversary invites a second look at Berryman’s life, art, and reputation,” writes Helen Vendler in The New York Review of Books. Second since when? It is suddenly as if without the centenary, there had been no books available, no poems written under the Berryman influence, no articles or reviews, since...when?

The Modernist Studies Association’s annual conference in Boston this year explores the theme of revolutions. Yet they also make room for what they call “anti-revolutionary repetition," which looks a lot like centennialism: “The proposed conference theme invites us to consider as well forms of anti-revolutionary repetition: 2015 marks not only the centenary of D.W. Griffith’s controversial but formally innovative film The Birth of a Nation but also the revival of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia.” Even as the committee that authored this sentence passingly acknowledges the historical violence of the KKK “revival,” it bears out the logic of centenaries all too quietly: a shift in the emphasis of “revolution” from rupture to cyclical return.

Indeed, centennialism might be especially incoherent when professed by devotees of the revolutionary historical avant-garde, for centenaries are often anathematic to avant-garde practice. Vladamir Mayakovsky wrote:

"Stop once and for all these reverential centenary jubilees, the worship by posthumous publication. Let’s have articles for the living! Bread for the living! Paper for the living!"

I expect these incitements will be missing from the 2017 centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Even poets who invite the most pious forms of centenary worshipfulness often disavowed this form of attachment to their works. This year is the centenary of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but as Prufrock muses, “Would it have been worth while [...] / To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.’” Here, the bizarre mood of the future past, the arch and artificial tone of “I shall tell you all,” with its lull of double ls, the contentless repetitions, the clamorous pointing to oneself to be heard: this is the hollow time of centennialism. As Prufrock also puts it:

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker

The poem’s only ellipses come as Prufrock later sputters out, lamenting “I grow old… I grow old…” Prufrock bakes his own sense of obsolescence into his verse. His lines themselves grow weary. Let's honor their recognition of their own decay.

Why not view centenaries as natural moments to pause and commemorate some of the great achievements of literary expression, haloed by the vague and fleeting light of public interest? Because the empty occasions of calendrical time impose their false coherence on us. They inhibit the possibility of a critical program guiding our sense of a usable past, celebrating instead only Prufrock’s flickering diminishment. Centennials do not augment historical expressions, they carve them into the thin slices of a party cake, consumed with the last coffee or drink of the evening before a big sleep.

I hear that University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is pulling out all the stops for a “statewide” Gwendolyn Brooks @ 100 celebration of her birth in 2017. True, she’s easily the most important poet in the history of Chicago. Sign me up. But many aspects of Brooks’s career remain inaccessible, owing in part to the belated sale of her papers. Down with the centenary as long as more durable forms of Brooks stewardship remain in abeyance. Where is the “beyond ‘We Real Cool’” Brooks unit on the curriculum of every CPS student? Why has there been no critical biography since George Kent’s incomplete effort, published after his death in 1990? The most substantial collection, Blacks, is no substitute for an overdue Collected Poems. At least since Ferguson, many have been tacitly celebrating the 46th anniversary of Brooks’s poem “Riot”—a work with a special purchase on our present—by the simple act of circulating and reading and talking about the poem. I join them and will again when it turns 47. How about an immediate, free reissue of the remarkable first-edition pamphlet brought out by Broadside Press with Jeff Donaldson's gorgeous illustration, placed innocuously amid the informational literature at every police station in the country? Let no one wait for a Golden 50th.

There are other centennials requiring our pause. Chadwick Allen wonderfully explores the meaning of the 1976 bicentennial of the American Revolution for indigenous peoples in his recent book, Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. But let the rest pass unannounced. Instead of commemorative holidays, let's have programs for the present, plans for the future, “articles for the living!” Let's remind others of what's neglected at the most inconvenient hours.

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Modernism's Unfinished Business?


On modernism's problematic legacy of form and de-formation.


In the English-speaking world, the mention of modernism usually conjures a couple of things: famous authors (one thinks of names such as T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf); and avant-garde formal experimentation, from what Eliot in his study of the metaphysical poets calls the amalgamation of disparate experience to the use of stream of consciousness as a mode of narration. In the larger, global picture, of course, modernism has been associated with innovations in photography, art, film, architecture, sound, and music—all in all with the appearance of novel techniques in the construction of imaginary, symbolic, and social time-spaces.

The issue of form remains contentious. Outside the Anglophone context, discussions of modernist engagements with form cannot fail to acknowledge the important contributions of the Russian Formalists, whose notion of defamiliarization was widely adopted in conceptual and imaginative undertakings throughout the twentieth century and beyond. The irony in this case is well-known: the Formalists were intent on de-formation as a way to renew awareness of the world, their point being that form is deadly when it becomes a mere automatized habit. The Formalists, who were given this name by their detractors, were advocates of techniques, devices, and processes that would help us disengage from fossilized form (that is, formalism); hence their emphasis on art’s potential to roughen our perception, to surprise and awaken us.

But even as modernism’s continuing influence in multiple fields and discourses owes its impetus to de-formation as both a concept and a practice, it seems imperative to raise a historical question: why did de-formation, which was, arguably, always present in the literary and artistic practices of earlier time periods, come to play such a dominant role in the avant-gardism of more recent, indeed contemporary times? What factors made the fetishizing of de-formation—a fetishizing that greatly disturbed the critic Georg Lukács—a modernist signature? With this question in mind, formal techniques such as montage (film), collage (art), stream of consciousness and polyphonicity (fiction), estrangement effect (drama), and their like begin to assume a discernible quality: these techniques’ emphases on fragmentation and disintegration, it seems, make them eminently objectifiable, reproducible, and thus fetishizable—that is to say, portable and exportable.

Part of the problem with modernism’s legacy, then, is that these portable and exportable formal markers have so traveled around the world that they have brought about another type of automatism, what Theodor Adorno, discussing the fetishistic character of modern music in capitalist society, called regression in listening. For thinkers who share Adorno’s disdain for modern mass culture, the project of modernism, even if it is an inevitable failure, has to be about recovering a reality behind the fetishes. Yet after more than a century, the modernist avant-garde legacy has become so deeply enmeshed with the commodifying forces of corporatist capitalism that the distinction between art and advertising has come to seem irrelevant. Some theorists have therefore argued that the contemporary world is a post-art world (David Joselit, After Art).

Another aspect of modernism’s unfinished business pertains to modernism’s relations with the non-elite and/or non-Euro-American worlds. Raymond Williams’s essays in The Politics of Modernism provide important examples of interrogations of the political implications of the avant-garde’s claims to revolution and social renewal. Other theorists, from James Clifford (The Predicament of Culture) to Sally Price (Primitive Art in Civilized Places), alert us to the cross-cultural dynamics embedded in modernism’s investment in primitivism. Anne Phillips’s Multiculturalism without Culture may be seen as a more recent response to what Clifford calls the predicament of culture—of culture as the unavoidable, yet precarious, arena for creative and discursive undertakings—once we accept the fact that there have been and will always be cultures (in the plural) with vast unevenness in achievements and resources.

From a certain perspective, however, the predicament of culture and the issues of multiculturalism are postmodern topics. How do we arrive at them from the origins of high modernism? What kinds of trajectories—disciplinary, philosophical, artistic, and practical—lead from the heightened interest in form, however defined (revolutionary or elitist), to the fraught, unresolved confrontations among contemporary global cultures?

In the Western academy, one such trajectory may be traced in modernism’s immense influence on poststructuralist theory, as represented by the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida. Despite their disciplinary and critical differences, what these Parisian intellectuals of the postwar period had in common was a dedication to anti-humanism. The "ends of Man" as they theorized for the European human sciences—in a mode of writing referred to as critique—have left indelible imprints on the work of subsequent generations on both sides of the Atlantic and around the globe. Can these thinkers’ dramatizations of "the age of the crisis of man"—to borrow from Mark Greif’s book title—be seen as a genealogical trait of modernism itself, and if so, how might this trait be elaborated? In the spirited announcements of the ends of Man, is there not a residual metaphysics of Man lurking somewhere?

The modernist fetishization of form may also be seen as a precursor to the turn toward the posthuman, whereby the ascendancy of computational technology marks what may be regarded as the crossing of an ultimate threshold. Form in the older sense—as a crafty means of crystallizing, transmitting, storing, and redeeming human experience—is now understood by some theorists to have given way to computation as the preemptive, determinant logic, one whose interlocutors are no longer humans with imprecise sensory capacities but rather networks comprised of mathematical actants (such as algorithms). If the technological innovations of an earlier era were still centered around human creativity as such (think of the phonograph, radio, film, television, and so forth and their ties to imperfect, material human performances), those of post-electronic times rather subsume human agency to the ubiquitous regime of machinic calibrations, whose links to human experience now seem largely a matter of software programming, social control, and ever more sophisticated varieties of surveillance. The coolest modernist fetish today seems to be human experience in the form of generative data and metadata.

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