Bad Modernisms

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Modernism is hot again. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, poets and architects, designers and critics, teachers and artists are rediscovering the virtues of the previous century’s most vibrant cultural constellation. Yet this widespread embrace raises questions about modernism’s relation to its own success. Modernism’s “badness”—its emphasis on outrageous behavior, its elevation of negativity, its refusal to be condoned—seems essential to its power. But once modernism is accepted as “good” or valuable (as a great deal of modernist art now is), its status as a subversive aesthetic intervention seems undermined. The contributors to Bad Modernisms tease out the contradictions in modernism’s commitment to badness.

Bad Modernisms thus builds on and extends the “new modernist studies,” recent work marked by the application of diverse methods and attention to texts and artists not usually labeled as modernist. In this collection, these developments are exemplified by essays ranging from a reading of dandyism in 1920s Harlem as a performance of a “bad” black modernist imaginary to a consideration of Filipino American modernism in the context of anticolonialism. The contributors reconsider familiar figures—such as Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Josef von Sternberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. H. Auden, and Wyndham Lewis—and bring to light the work of lesser-known artists, including the writer Carlos Bulosan and the experimental filmmaker Len Lye. Examining cultural artifacts ranging from novels to manifestos, from philosophical treatises to movie musicals, and from anthropological essays to advertising campaigns, these essays signal the capaciousness and energy galvanizing the new modernist studies.

Contributors. Lisa Fluet, Laura Frost, Michael LeMahieu, Heather K. Love, Douglas Mao, Jesse Matz, Joshua L. Miller, Monica L. Miller, Sianne Ngai, Martin Puchner, Rebecca L. Walkowitz

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Bright, disquieting, and energetic, these essays bring back to life the complex political and artistic provocations of their modernisms. Badly needed.”—Rachel Bowlby, author of Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping

“I envision Bad Modernisms as a linchpin in the ‘new modernist studies.’ This sprightly, compelling volume gives us a map for that conversation; offers a guide to the tangled pathways of history, criticism, and cultural practice that converge in modernist studies; and reveals the astonishingly ample, indeed global, playing field of the discourse of modernism.”—Jennifer Wicke, author of Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337973
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas Mao is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University. He is the author of Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production.

Rebecca L. Walkowitz is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation and a coeditor of several books, including The Turn to Ethics.

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All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3797-3

Chapter One

Heather K. Love Forced Exile: Walter Pater's Queer Modernism

to be weak is miserable, Doing or suffering ... Paradise Lost (1.157-58)

In thinking about bad modernism, it may be useful to recall that it was modernism itself that gave bad a good name. Being bad has always meant crossing the line, turning away from what is accepted and familiar, heading out for the unknown; but it was only with modernism that the value of such transgression underwent a sharp reversal. Certainly, we may say that the Romantics inaugurated the possibility that bad could be good, that revolt could be a moral duty rather than a moral failing. But it was modernism that gave currency to the idea that going to the limits might be essential to the recreation of the world. From Baudelaire's Satanism to Marx's "poetry of the future" to Nietzsche's "transvaluation of all values," modernists sought to wreck the old world in order to make room for the new. They viewed the world of their predecessors as so corrupt and oppressive that it practically begged for destruction; they prescribed, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, "surgery-or a bomb." Although it made up only a fraction of the aesthetic production in the period, this "heroic" version of modernism has been most consistently identified withmodernism itself. The academy has welcomed many of modernism's most notorious bombsquads, making a place not only for the Men of 1914, but also for Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. Over the course of the twentieth century, this version of modernism has prevailed to such an extent that innovation and the break with authority now look like core values.

It is a mark of modernism's profound success, in other words, that "we moderns" tend to think that making good depends on a willingness to do bad. As a result, it is difficult to say what we might mean by bad modernism. If we are considering making a break with the orthodoxies of modernism, resistance may be futile: iconoclasm is what modernism is all about. If we hope, instead, to identify and claim a subaltern current or deviant strain of modernism, we are once again in trouble. Such modernism would not really be bad modernism: it would just be modernism. Again, we might interpret bad modernism as a dissident form of modernist scholarship; however, in an academic context that values transgression or, at the very least, novelty, modernism that is not a little bit bad does not get much play. Given the modernist transvaluation of values, it is difficult to imagine a bad modernism that would not seem anything but just fine.

In his book on the modernist work of art, Untwisting the Serpent, Daniel Albright characterizes modernism as an art of extremity. He writes, "Much of the strangeness, the stridency, the exhilaration of Modernist art can be explained by [its] strong thrust toward the verges of aesthetic experience: after certain nineteenth-century artists had established a remarkably safe, intimate center where the artist and audience could dwell, the twentieth century reaches out to the freakish circumference of art." Albright describes the extremist impulse in modernism as a desire to cross boundaries, to set off from the center of culture toward its outer limits. What is crucial in such a definition, however, is the different valence of exile for those escaping from the center and for those who find themselves already positioned on the "freakish circumference." The meaning of modernist transgression-of crossing the line-depends to a great extent on which way you are headed: it is one thing to light out for the Territory, and something different, after all, to live there.

Recently, critics have begun to rethink this image of modernism as a "drive to the margins" by situating aesthetic modernism within a broader geographical and cultural framework. The ascendancy of American and European high modernism has been challenged by recent work that explores black and white modernism, non-elite cultural production in the period, the gender of modernism, and the global dimensions of modernity. While it is possible to understand the transgressive aspect of modernism as an escape from the crumbling center of culture (the "white flight" model), the early twentieth century was also an era of new social possibilities for a range of marginal or dominated subjects. If the prevailing image of modernism remains the drive to the margins, it is in part because modernism itself is still defined from the center; recent work on alternative cultures of modernity has not been integrated into an understanding of the period as marked by traffic between the center and the margins. The exemplary modernist gesture of self-exile is at some distance from the experience of "forced exile"-whether through migration or marginalization-which is one of the most widespread and characteristic effects of modernization. If one has not departed under one's own steam, being on the margins looks less like heroic sacrifice and more like amor fati. Such a modernism cannot easily be recuperated as good: in recording the experience of forced exile, it undermines the heroism of modernist transgression, revealing the uneven terrain of twentieth-century modernity.

As important as it is to attend to the real differences between "dominant" and "marginal" modernisms, it is also important to remember how difficult it can be, in any given case, to tell the difference. Consider the example of James Joyce, who in a certain light looks to be a perfect representative of dominant modernism. Joyce's position is significantly complicated by his status as a subject of British colonial rule. In the case of Joyce's decision to leave Ireland, it would be difficult to say whether this exile was forced or chosen. Stephen Daedalus's embrace of Lucifer as his role model in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is perhaps the most iconic gesture of modernist transgression. Stephen is modernism's proudest exile: he takes the rebel angel's motto-"non serviam: I will not serve"-as the cornerstone of his aesthetic and moral program. "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning." In the conventional account of divine history, voiced in the novel by the pastor at a school retreat, exile is figured as the punishment for Lucifer's rebellion; in following Lucifer, Stephen embraces exile as the very means of his rebellion. Stephen's decision to betray the sacred trinity of family, God, and nation is one of the defining moments of modernism. In this by-now familiar narrative, the proud exiles of Joyce's generation abandoned the bankrupt certainty of their fathers' world in order to construct new modes of life and art: they betrayed the old world in order to forge a new one.

While modernism may have destroyed the old world, it's not clear that it successfully created a new one. In this sense, Lucifer is an apt emblem of high modernism: his stand against God is both courageous and doomed from the start. Milton offers the paradigmatic account of the tragic rebellion of the most beautiful of angels. He draws attention to the intimate link between defiance and abjection at the beginning of Paradise Lost, when we find Satan "vanquish'd, rolling in the fiery gulf" (1.52). In these opening lines, Milton constantly juxtaposes Satan's continued defiance with his utter misery, as he describes him "prone on the flood" (1.195), raising his head above the waves to speechify against God. This constant underlining of the contrast between Satan's condition and his rhetoric is to emphasize the continuity between them: Milton suggests that it is because Satan is feeling so bad that he is talking so big.

We hear a similar quaver in Stephen's voice when he tells his friend Cranly that he is willing to bear damnation. The irony of Stephen's pledging himself to eternal solitude as he "thrills" to Cranly's touch is not lost on the reader (269), who hears the imminent disappointment in this oath of defiance. Stephen's namesake Daedalus captures the ambivalence of modernist transgression: he is at once heroic artificer-the architect of the labyrinth-and at the same time a failed creator and an involuntary exile. I think we can trace the underside of modern Satanism in the word "apostasy," derived from the Greek apostasia: "to stand off, withdraw" (OED). Given God's absolute power, the angels can do nothing but "stand back" from Him. As a form of aesthetic and moral apostasy, modernism joins the image of revolt to the image of abject failure. While Stephen claims to fly in the face of God, his act of apostasy is an act of refusal, a step backward rather than a lurch forward.

In his article "Salt Peanuts: Sound and Sense in African/American Oral/ Musical Creativity," Clyde Taylor offers a version of modernism that resonates with this Satanic version of rebellion. Treating the relation between black and white modernism, Taylor suggests that we think of all modernism as a response to the experience of alienation and exclusion.

[A]ll people in extreme situations are either experimenters or passive victims. African experimenters in America differ from the experimenters of Western creativity only in having less choice whether or not to try something new. The displaced Africans shared the same motivations for experimentation and for indifference to faithful representation of the world ordered by Western rationalist intelligence as those which drove Picasso, Stravinksy, and Ezra Pound. In both the African American oral tradition and the art movements we call modernist, we find a driving search for forms of spiritual and human expression that could withstand the alienation of modern industrial culture and its inclination to transform human relations into commodity relations.

Taylor traces modernist innovation as a response to victimization and sees continuity between the kinds of experiments undertaken in dominant cultures and those undertaken in vernacular ones. The only difference is that "African experimenters in America" have had less choice than "the experimenters of Western creativity [about] whether or not to try something new." Drawing a link between the experience of black Americans and of high modernists, he suggests that in the early twentieth century both groups found themselves on the margins; setting the heroics of modernist innovation side-by-side with the experience of victimization, he draws out the strain of failure that runs through all modernism. Such a framework offers a usefully rich account of "dominant" modernism, of "marginal" modernism, and of the many modernisms ranged along this spectrum. Yet there are crucial differences between a generalized sense of alienation and structural forms of domination. A rethinking of bad modernism-of modernism gone bad-along Taylor's lines also demands a new attention to the specific forms of exclusion faced by early-twentieth-century subjects.

We might begin to think through such exclusions by considering the history of the word bad. According to the OED, bad originally derives from the Middle English bad-de, a variation on the Old English term bœddel ('homo utriusque generis, hermaphrodita') and its "derivative bœdling 'effeminate fellow, womanish man,' applied contemptuously." Webster's Unabridged Dictionary links the term further to bœdan, to defile. This term finds its origin in an experience of social domination, in the stigmatizing force of the insult ("bœdling ... applied contemptuously"). With the performative force of any slur, bad constitutes the other as abject, marginal, and degraded simply through the act of naming. It is possible to trace the aftereffects of this origin in a range of meanings over the last several centuries: these meanings range from more neutral definitions of bad as "lacking good qualities" to stronger characterizations such as unpleasant, unhealthy, deficient, downcast, corrupt, decayed, false, pernicious, morally depraved, and evil.

This longer etymological history of bad runs parallel to the history of the word queer, which also has its origin as a term of abuse for sexual and gender outsiders. This playground slur underwent a change in its fortunes when in the late 1980s it was recuperated as the name for a rebel strand of lesbian and gay politics. At the end of Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler discusses the history of the term queer, asking "How is it that a term that signaled degradation has been turned ... to signify a new and affirmative set of meanings? ... Is this a reversal that retains and reiterates the abjected history of the term? When the term has been used as a paralyzing slur, as the mundane interpellation of pathologized sexuality, it has produced the user of the term as the emblem and vehicle of normalization.... If the term is now subject to a reappropriation, what are the conditions and limits of that significant reversal?" Butler considers the challenges of turning queer to good effect, given its "constitutive history of injury." Butler's reflections here are indebted to Michel Foucault's discussion of "'reverse' discourse" in The History of Sexuality, in which he traces the origins of modern homosexual identity to the legal and medical literature of the late nineteenth century. Foucault's account of this history is marked by ambivalence, as he points out that the claim for the "legitimacy" of homosexuality was made "in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified." Both Foucault and Butler suggest that turning a negative category into a positive one cannot be done cleanly: modern homosexuality is bound up with modern regimes of categorization, discipline, and stigma. In the context of bad modernism, we might ask whether the reclaiming of bad is a reversal "that retains and reiterates the abjected history of the term." As in the case of queer, the modernist affirmation of this term is haunted by its history as an instrument of shame.

If modernism in general can be said to have deployed a certain inversion of good and evil, the specific turn in the meaning of the word bad seems to have been an invention of black American vernacular speech. While the OED names a whole range of bad meanings of bad, from deficient to corrupt to evil, its one positive meaning ("Possessing an abundance of favourable qualities; of a musical performance or player: going to the limits of free improvisation; of a lover: extravagantly loving") is traced to "Jazz and Black English." The OED locates the first positive use of bad in the Harlem novel The Walls of Jericho (1928) ("This crack army o' Joshua's ... walk around, blowin' horns.... The way they blow on them is too bad."). The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces a slightly earlier usage ("Ellington's jazzique is just too bad," 1927) and a much earlier black dialect usage in the work of the American humorist George Ade ("a pohk chop 'at's bad to eat," 1897). Geneva Smitherman traces this use of "good" bad to the Mandinka language, and specifically to the phrase "a ka nyi kojugu" ("It is good badly"), suggesting that the black dialect inversion of bad was an African retention. This outtake from the history of bad points toward a bad modernism speaking in the vernacular, and speaking back to a history of victimization. The reversal of bad in an African American context is perhaps most visible as an example of reverse discourse in the reclaiming of the term "bad nigger," which originated as strictly a term of abuse but emerged later as a name for proud resistance. Classic figures of the "bad nigger" such as Jack Johnson and Stagolee embody the ambivalence of the Satanic ideal; their good badness is marked by a long history of social exile.

It is striking that "bad" seems, from the beginning, to have been caught up with the fate of social exiles. And while I would not want to conflate the situation of medieval hermaphrodites with that of black Americans at the turn of the twentieth century, it is nonetheless true that the word bad is haunted by a history of social domination. This bad or ruined history of bad may help us to rethink the image of modernist rebellion as heroic resistance and to bring out the strain of failure in all modernism.

In this essay I consider the bad modernism of the late-nineteenth-century critic and novelist Walter Pater, exploring his aesthetics of failure specifically in relation to his experience of bearing a marginalized sexual identity. Pater has proved difficult to classify in several ways. Understood alternately as a late Victorian, a decadent aesthete, and an early modernist, Pater resists easy situating within traditional literary periods. His most significant work, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), looks backward to exemplary moments in the history of Western culture, celebrating the coming together of the Greek and the Christian spirit in the Renaissance. Pater's turn toward the past aims to transform the present and the future; he explored these moments in an effort to ignite a similar moment of cultural revolution in the present. He drew on the past in part to break with it; his thoroughgoing critique of religious, moral, and social tradition is legible as modernist. Pater's social position is equally difficult to classify. In one sense, we can see him as situated within the inner sanctum of traditional English culture, especially if we understand Oxford's Brasenose College (where Pater was a don) as answering to that description. However, he was also positioned at the "freakish circumference" of culture. Pater's distance from norms of gender and sexual behavior meant for him a kind of internal exile; his position of educational and national privilege could be maintained only by fending off the constant threat of exposure. While Pater avoided the fate of the most famous martyr to homosexual persecution (he died in 1894, less than a year before Oscar Wilde's trial), his position at Oxford was seriously undermined by rumors of an affair with an undergraduate, William Money Hardinge.


Excerpted from BAD MODERNISMS Copyright © 2006 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Modernisms Bad and New / Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz 1

Forced Exile: Walter Pater’s Queer Modernism / Heather K. Love 19

The Aftershocks of Blast: Manifestos, Satire, and the Rear-Guard of Modernism / Martin Puchner 44

Nonsense Modernism: The Limits of Modernity and the Feelings of Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus / Michael LeMahieu 68

The Romance of Cliche: E.M. Hull, D.H. Lawrence, and Interwar Erotic Fiction / Laura Frost 94

Virginia Woolf’s Evasion: Critical Cosmopolitanism and British Modernism / Rebecca L. Walkowitz 119

Black Venus, Blonde Venus / Sianne Ngai 145

The Black Dandy as Bad Modernist / Monica L. Miller 179

A Shaman in Common: Lewis, Auden, and the Queerness of Liberalism / Douglas Mao 206

The Gorgeous Laughter of filipino Modernity: Carlos Bulosan’s The Laughter of My Father / Joshua L. Miller 238

Hit-Man Modernism / Lisa Fluet 269

Cultures of Impression / Jesse Matz 298

Bibliography 331

Notes on Contributors 353

Index 355

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