Pragmatic Modernism

Pragmatic Modernism

Pragmatic Modernism

Pragmatic Modernism

Synopsis

Modernism has long been understood as a radical repudiation of the past. Reading against the narrative of modernism-as-break,Pragmatic Modernismtraces an alternative strain of modernist thought that grows out of pragmatist philosophy and is characterized by its commitment to gradualism, continuity, and recontextualization. It rediscovers a distinctive response to the social, intellectual, and artistic transformations of modernity in the work of Henry James, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and William James. These thinkers share an institutionally-grounded approach to change which emphasizes habits, continuities, and daily life over spectacular events, heroic opposition, and radical rupture.
Pragmatic modernists developed an active, dialectical approach to habit, maintaining a critical stance toward mindless repetitions while refusing to romanticize moments of shock or conflict. Through its analysis of pragmatist keywords, including "habit," "institution," "prediction," and "bigness,"Pragmatic Modernismoffers new readings of works by James, Proust, Stein, and Andre Breton, among others. It shows, for instance, how Stein's characteristic literary innovation--her repetitions--aesthetically materialize the problem of habit; and how institutions--businesses, museums, newspapers, the law, and even the state itself--help to construct the subtlest of personal observations and private gestures in James's novels. This study reconstructs an overlooked strain of modernism. In so doing, it helps us to reimagine the stark choice between political quietism and total revolution that has been handed down to us as modernism's legacy.

Excerpt

In the quarter-century since the publication of Andreas Huyssen’s pathbreaking book, scholars in modernist studies have become accustomed to using the phrase “the great divide” in relation to the object of our study. For Huyssen, the divide was between traditional, “elite” culture on one side, and the debased and feminized culture of the public sphere on the other; scholars such as David Chinitz (in T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, 2003) have demonstrated quite convincingly that Huyssen’s model was too simple, but certainly it was both provocative and productive for the field. And if he sometimes wrongly described who stood on either side of the divide, surely Huyssen was right to call our attention to its existence.

Reading Lisi Schoenbach’s Pragmatic Modernism, one is constantly reminded of another “great divide” partitioning literary modernism: that between its British and American forms. To be sure, thinking about modernism without taking into account its transatlantic vector would be preposterous; and while a certain kind of literary modernism will forever be associated with international urban centers, so too many of its best-known practitioners moved fluidly between them (Joyce, Eliot, Pound).

American studies and modernist studies: most often, they seem to run along parallel tracks, vaguely aware of one another, but rarely jumping the line. Pragmatism, of course, is the great American philosophical tradition; but with few exceptions, it has not seemed to modernist scholars an important means for assaying modernist artistic production. Take for instance Ulysses, that great avatar of European modernism: What would it mean to think about Joyce’s novel using the lens of pragmatism? At this point, we don’t really know; for Ulysses has since . . .

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