Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form

Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form

Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form

Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form


Tense Future falls into two parts. The first develops a critical account of total war discourse and addresses the resistant potential of acts, including acts of writing, before a future that looks barred or predetermined by war. Part two shifts the focus to long interwar narratives that pit both their scale and their formal turbulence against total war's portrait of the social totality, producing both ripostes and alternatives to that portrait in the practice of literary encyclopedism. The book's introduction grounds both parts in the claim that industrialized warfare, particularly theaerial bombing of cities, intensifies an under-examined form of collective traumatization: a pre-traumatic syndrome in which the anticipation of future-conditional violence induces psychic wounds. Situating this claim in relation to other scholarship on "critical futurities," Saint-Amour discusses its ramifications for trauma studies, historical narratives generally, and the historiography of the interwar period in particular. The introduction ends with an account of the weak theory of modernism now structuring the field of modernist studies, and of weak theory's special suitability for opposing total war, that strongest of strong theories.


The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

We also lack a history of the future tense.

—George Steiner, “The Great Ennui,” In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971)


Robert J. Lifton’s path-breaking work on the survivors of Hiroshima opens with a section called “Anticipation.” a city leveled in a moment by a single, unknown weapon: anticipating such an experience is as hard to imagine as integrating it into the rest of one’s life. in fact, the unassimilable nature of traumatic violence would seem to depend on the impossibility of its anticipation. Lifton implies as much: “Neither past experience nor immediate perceptions—the two sources of prior imagination—could encompass what was about to occur.” Yet he also records an expectant, premonitory atmosphere in Hiroshima during the weeks before the bombing, a compound of past experience and immediate perceptions that, while it could not “encompass” the eventual experience of the bomb, cannot simply be dismissed as speculation that found an accidental correlate in the nuclear event.

Many used the Japanese word bukimi, meaning weird, ghastly, or unearthly,
to describe Hiroshima’s uneasy combination of continued good fortune
and expectation of catastrophe. People remembered saying to one another,
“Will it be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?” One man described how,
each night he was on air-raid watch, “I trembled with fear. … I would
think, ‘Tonight it will be Hiroshima.’” These “premonitions” were partly

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