On the Margins of Modernism

HOEL


After Modernism is canonized, however, by the post-war settlement and its accompanying, complicit academic endorsements, there is then the presumption that since Modernism is here in this specific phase or period, there is nothing beyond it.

Raymond Williams

“Cependant, après que le Modernisme soit canonisé par l’accommodement de l’après-guerre et les appuis académiques complices qui l’accompagnaient, il y a alors la présomption que, puisque le Modernisme est ici dans cette phase ou période spécifique, il n’y a rien hors de lui.”


… historical and theoretical discourse on literature is always tacitly based on what I call a “selective modeling” of literary production, a modeling that both constitutes and serves its own cultural prototypes. But the selective processes, their tendentiousness and utility, should be opened up for analysis and not simply accepted as inevitable, built-in blinders. […]

Writers the world over have self-consciously participated in—not simply been influenced by—the great international experiment with the -isms of modernism. But, ironically, Arabic, Hebrew, Senegalese, Japanese, and Yiddish literatures (among many others) have been excluded from recent theories of minor writing by the theoretical premises of the very same recovery project that should have made their voices audible. […]

All too often the selective modeling of minor literature—as of “international modernism”—on a Euro-American geopolitics and linguistics effectively leaves all that is not English, French, or German (or “deterritorialized” versions thereof) outside our purview.

Chana Kronfeld

“… le discours historique et théorique sur la littérature est toujours tacitement basé sur ce que j’appelle une “modélisation sélective” de la production littéraire, une modélisation qui à la fois constitue et sert ses propres prototypes culturels. Mais les processus sélectifs, leur caractère tendancieux et leur utilité, doivent être ouverts à l’analyse et pas simplement considérés comme d’inévitables œillères intégrées. […]

Des écrivains de monde entier ont consciemment participé  à — pas simplement été influencés par — la grande expérience internationale avec les -ismes du modernisme. Mais, de manière ironique, les littératures arabe, hébraïque, sénégalaise, japonaise et yiddish (parmi beaucoup d’autres) ont été exclues des théories récentes sur l’écriture mineure par les prémisses théoriques du projet de rétablissement lui-même qui aurait dû rendre leurs voix audibles. […]

Beaucoup trop souvent, la modélisation sélective de la littérature mineure — comme du “modernisme international” — sur une géopolitique et une linguistique euro-américaines laisse de fait tout ce qui n’est pas anglais, français, ou allemand (ou qui en soit une version « déterritorialisée ») en dehors de notre champ.”

 Statue du poète mongol Borjgin Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj (1906-1937)

                                             Through the multiple, broken prisms of the minor, the mystified notion of a unified canonical modernism is exploded, subjecting the very language of center and periphery itself to a critique that exposes its own historicity.

(First Century Jerusalem. A crowd of followers congregates outside the hovel where Brian, an anachronistic, parodic double for Christ, lives with his mother. The chanting mob arouses Brian from his first night with his lover, Judith, who is the sole female member of the Peoples’ Front of Judea, an ineffectual splinter group fighting against the Roman occupation. Reluctantly, Brian opens the window and tries to get the noisy crowd to disperse.)

Crowd: A blessing! A blessing!
(more pandemonium)
Brian: No, please. Please. Please listen.
(they quieten)
I’ve got one or two things to say.
Crowd: Tell us. Tell us both of them!!
Brian: Look … You’ve got it all wrong.
You don’t need to follow me.
You don’t need to follow anybody.
You’ve got to think for yourselves.
You’re all individuals. 
Crowd: Yes, we’re all individuals. 
Brian: You’re all different. 
Crowd: Yes, we are all different. 
Dennis: I’m not. 
Crowd: Sssshhh!
—Monty Python, The Life of Brian

The 1979 movie The Life of Brian offers itself, in Monty Python’s irreverent parodic logic, as parable and prelude for this study on the margins of modernism. Difference iterated and echoed in unison (“Yes, we are all different”) is difference erased, a gesture that can be met only with resistance, with a refusal to be different in the manner prescribed by the consensus (“I’m not”). From its collective vantage point outside Brian’s door, the crowd embraces otherness as a force that consolidates a majority. In the process, they turn Brian, that antiheroic mock-Christ, into a figure of absolute yet vacuous authority. But it is Dennis, the little bearded man in the left-hand corner of the frame on whom I wish to turn the spotlight in this study, the one who mumbles “I’m not” and is silenced by the crowd, never to be heard from again.

What does it mean to be that writer, that reader on the margins of international modernism, in the corner of the picture yet part of it, when the crowd at the center clusters around a homogenized, privileged construction of difference? What does it mean for the visibility or audibility of that writer, that reader, when the center, in the process of championing difference, denies both that writer’s modernism and his or her minor status? Finally, what does it mean for the field if the very theoretical models that aim to uncover “the damage inflicted on minority cultures” structurally, institutionally participate in replicating it (JanMohamed and Lloyd, 1990:9)?

Modernism is famous for its affinity for the marginal, the exile, the “other.” Yet the representative examples of this marginality typically are those writers who have become the most canonical high modernists. Their “narrative of unsettlement, homelessness, solitude and impoverished independence” (Williams, 1989:34) may indeed have been cast in minor, discordant tones, but those tones were composed in the major key of the most commonly read European languages: English, French, German. While they sometimes acknowledge the multicultural, international nature of the movement, handbooks as well as theoretical debates on modernism and minor writing consistently focus on -isms and writers that are well within this major linguistic and geopolitical key. Consequently, even hugely influential trends within European modernism itself are sometimes made to sound like a casual codetta: Scandinavian modernism, by many accounts the overture to all later trends; or the two very different variations on futurism, the Italian and the Russian; or the still resonant din of Rumanian dada (described by most critics as French). These modernisms usually get the cursory nod, while the focus of discussion remains on the canonically privileged modalities of difference in Kafka and Pound, Proust and Joyce.

Very few of the discussions of international modernism available in English or French or German include Russian acmeism or Russian imaginism, although important poets who see themselves as affiliated with these trends can be found not only in Russia but also all the way over in the Palestine of the 1920s and 1930s. We love to read the acmeists Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, even the imaginist Sergey Yesenin, in translation, but this doesn’t make our view of international modernism more inclusive. This is perhaps only natural, since historical and theoretical discourse on literature is always tacitly based on what I call a “selective modeling” of literary production, a modeling that both constitutes and serves its own cultural prototypes. But the selective processes, their tendentiousness and utility, should be opened up for analysis and not simply accepted as inevitable, built-in blinders.

Raymond Williams exposes the link between consolidating a Euro-American modernist canon from what was once a marginal literary trend and erasing unprivileged formations of marginality. His words resonate with special poignancy because they may have been among his last. These are his notes for the first chapter of an unfinished book, brilliantly edited and introduced by Tony Pinkney in the posthumous volume The Politics of Modernism:

After Modernism is canonized, however, by the post-war settlement and its accompanying, complicit academic endorsements, there is then the presumption that since Modernism is here in this specific phase or period, there is nothing beyond it. The [once] marginal or rejected artists become classics of organized teaching and of travelling exhibitions in the great galleries of the metropolitan cities. ‘Modernism’ is confined to this highly selective field and denied to everything else in an act of pure ideology, whose first, unconscious irony is that, absurdly, it stops history dead.

… [W]e must search out and counterpose an alternative tradition taken from the neglected works left in the wide margins of the century. (Williams, 1989:34–35)

Searching out and counterposing such alternative traditions on the margins of modernism is, indeed, my primary project in this book. Many minor modernisms remain “in the wide margins of this century,” excluded from standard accounts of this international movement simply because they lie outside the official borders of the unarticulated yet powerful cartographic paradigm: international modernism = Europe + United States. Let me offer just one example. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s excellent critical anthology Modernism 1890–1930 ([1976] 1981) is much more sensitive than most traditional treatments of modernism to the movement’s diversity and heterogeneity. It nevertheless adheres implicitly to the cartographic formula, never straying beyond the boundaries of Europe and the United States. Not coincidentally, this same anthology also systematically marginalizes the crucial role women writers and editors played in the dynamics of international modernism, minimizing even the contribution of those women who were active within the Euro-American frame.

How to search out and counterpose an alternative tradition and alternative theory of marginal modernisms without universalizing them out of existence? How to account, within a theoretically rigorous model, both for the women and minorities traditionally marginalized within the Euro-American canon and for the diverse groups and individual female and male writers outside the cartographic and linguistic mainstream? Writers the world over have self-consciously participated in—not simply been influenced by—the great international experiment with the -isms of modernism. But, ironically, Arabic, Hebrew, Senegalese, Japanese, and Yiddish literatures (among many others) have been excluded from recent theories of minor writing by the theoretical premises of the very same recovery project that should have made their voices audible.

Nevertheless, current theories of the minor have had an important effect in a number of ways. They have refocused attention on the decentering, deterritorializing, indeed the revolutionary and innovative force of minor writing. At the same time they have also underscored the potential appropriation of the minor by the major canonical system; and they have pointed out ways in which a minor literature can replicate exclusionary practices in its attempt to model itself after the hegemonic literary canon. Recent discussions have also helped reinscribe the association between minor and modernist, charging the old alliance between the two concepts with a new political urgency. All these perspectives have proven exceedingly helpful to me in exploring the history and theory of marginal modernisms.

Yet coming as I do from the perspective of two literatures, Hebrew and Yiddish, whose (different) modernisms and modes of minor writing do not fit into the postcolonial models now in vogue, I am troubled by what I see as the exclusionary effect of current definitions of the minor. All too often the selective modeling of minor literature—as of “international modernism”—on a Euro-American geopolitics and linguistics effectively leaves all that is not English, French, or German (or “deterritorialized” versions thereof) outside our purview. This exclusion is not merely a result of some bad choice of examples but is logically entailed by the explicitly articulated principles of the most detailed theories of minor writing available to date. Only if we construct the major through the minor, not—as current wisdom has it—the minor through the major, can we begin to discern the regionalism, contextual diversity, and interdependence of even the most highly canonical forms of modernism. Theories of modernism that are modeled on belated, decentered, or linguistically minor practices may provide some insight into the processes that have become automatized or rendered imperceptible in the canonical center. Through the multiple, broken prisms of the minor, the mystified notion of a unified canonical modernism is exploded, subjecting the very language of center and periphery itself to a critique that exposes its own historicity.

 Chana Kronfeld – On the Margins of Modernism. Decentering Literary Dynamics

Chana Kronfeld


REVIEW :

~

“Chana Kronfeld’s greatest contribution is her clear overview of contemporary theorists in Israel, whose work has reached only a limited audience in North America. Hebrew and Yiddish critics such as the late Dov Sadan and Dan Pagis, or the alive and well Ziva Ben-Porat and Hannan Hever, have remained relatively unknown here, although their work has figured prominently in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Kronfeld remedies this neglect, which may be attributable to the language barrier and geographic isolation, by surveying some prominent Israeli critics’ essays and by showing how their theories may deepen our understanding of Hebrew modernism.

Chana Kronfeld has contributed immeasurably to the study of Judaic literature. In addition to carrying out her original research as associate professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, she has trained a dozen of the most competent and interesting younger scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish writing. Her intellectual roots are planted in Ramat Aviv, at Tel Aviv University, where she studied with leading proponents of Israeli literary theory. Having moved permanently to the United States, however, she has guided the coming generation of Hebrew critics into academia as an avant-garde whose articles and books counterbalance an earlier brand of thematic scholarship. Kronfeld’s own long-awaited book helps set the agenda for contemporary critics of twentieth-century Hebrew poetry.”

Ken Frieden – Syracuse University