On New Modernist Studies

By Aryal, Yubraj | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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On New Modernist Studies

Aryal, Yubraj, Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

(Yubraj Aryal interviewed Peter Nicholls on New Modernist Studies. Mr Aryal focused his questions on some most recent issues on new modernist studies.)

Y. A.: You worked as the Director for the Center for Modernist Studies at University of Sussex before you recently moved to New York University. From your works, experiences and involvement in the field, could you please tell what is the most recent development in the field of [new] modernist studies today?


P.N: In the last ten years or so there has been what feels like an explosion of modernist studies. Scholars have become increasingly interested in what might be called the material history of modernism, in an expanded view of the field of cultural production in which art works appeared. There has been a lot of attention to what Lawrence Rainey calls the "institutions of modernism" and to the relation of particular texts to "public culture'. Critics (Mark Morrison, for example) have concerned themselves with the mechanisms of publication and reception through which modernist works made their appearance. We've also seen exciting work on the relation of modernism to psychoanalysis (books by Lyndsey Stonebridge and David Trotter are good examples), along with explorations of its connections to anarchism (Alan Antliff), New Deal politics (Michael Szalay), and the publication of little magazines (three volumes in progress edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker).

Modernism is becoming a large-scale phenomenon, then, with significant new inclusions, such as the Harlem Renaissance (see Houston Baker's work). I recently revised my Modernisms: A Literary Guide for a new, expanded edition and one of the things that struck me was a growing sense among critics of European modernism as a rich and highly complex area. In my own work I've always been intrigued by modernism as a plural, transnational set of movements (Marjorie Perloff's The Futurist Moment remains for me a key text, with its dazzling grasp of the continental scene) and it's here that I think really new work will be done. The remarkable collection of materials edited by Timothy O. Benson and Eva Forgacs, Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930, shows just how much, from an Anglo-American critical perspective, we don't really know about. But there are signs that this is beginning to change. The newly-founded European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernist Studies held its first conference last year in Ghent and that was a very well-attended and truly international affair. This year the conference is in Poland, and that location indicates a real desire to open up discussion of the many national avant-gardes that remain to be explored. There are significant linguistic difficulties attaching to this move, of course, but I think that we shall soon begin to see our own modernisms in a rather differently refracted light.

Y. A.: Your response raised two questions in my mind. I am going to ask you one at a time. I am interested in your use of the term "material history of modernism." If we try to read European modernist avant-garde writings in the material conditions of an accelerating rise of colonialism, imperialism abroad and fascism and capitalism at home, what picture can it give to us? What role have avant-garde artists played against fascism, colonialism and capitalism? My question is how new modernist studies attempt to read the radical experimentation of European aesthetic modernity along the line of capitalist imperialist societal modernity of Europe?

P.N: This is a large and complicated question. If we look at the range of "historical avant-gardes", as Peter Burger calls the proliferation of experimental tendencies at the beginning of the twentieth century, it's fairly clear that we can distinguish between movements which celebrated modernity and those that didn't. Italian futurism is the best example of an avant-gardism which tied its own formal experimentalism very closely to the dynamic of capitalist modernity, while the main current of Anglo-American modernism, as exemplified in the work of T.

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