ENGL 409 B2: Modernism and Perpetual Crisis

R. Brazeau

Since the critical consolidation of the field of modernist studies, one of the abiding assumptions about works gathered under the rubric concerns their critique of predominant capitalist and bourgeois values and conventions. In their putative attempt to figure a way outside or beyond the power that these dominant (and dominating) ideological codes exert, such works were seen as championing something that was regarded as vitally human, unique, inventive, and suppressed within modern society. At least since Huyssen's After the Great Divide, modernist literature has been positioned at a point of rupture between conservative norms and atypical or alternative modes of expression and conduct; in fact, the idea that art would become the place of coalescence of this divergent stance toward mainstream society is, arguably, what defines “modernism” against its predecessors. In a related, although somewhat more material claim, Perry Anderson has argued (in “Modernity and Revolution”) that one of the animating energies of modernist literature was its “imaginative proximity to social revolution”; the corollary of Anderson’s claim is that art has moved progressively further from its revolutionary capacity as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries unfold.

Contrastingly, Lawrence Rainey, Jennifer Wicke and others have argued that modernist art and literature engaged in a series of progressively more elaborate acts of self-commodification, and, in so doing, did not so much resist the powers of commercialization or the market as mediate those emerging economic imperatives deep within the interstices of its aesthetic practice. John Brenkman’s influential Culture and Domination similarly challenges some of the long-standing assumptions of modernist critics in its questioning of how modernist culture, broadly conceived, co-exists with dominant social, economic, and political practices. Specifically, Brenkman inquires into the ways in which seemingly oppositional semiotic and semantic codes can become enfolded within, and defused by, mainstream cultural ideas, institutions, and practices.

This course will adopt a broad definition of social crisis in order to examine the diverse ways in which modernist literature engages with hegemonic culture in its articulation of the contours of its own historical moment. Two approaches immediately suggest themselves, but many others might be imagined: firstly, in what ways did specific modernists overtly engage with activist political platforms, and how did this engagement migrate into or inspire their work; secondly, how does modernism inscribe a generalized sense of social crisis in its semiotic or formal arrangements (or both)? This course is also interested in taking up the question of if (and how) modernism has become the new conservatism, or if the energizing strains of aesthetic activism that both early and contemporary commentators have found within it continue to resonate in modernist work and its relationship to mainstream cultural practice.

Other approaches to consider:

Political agitation and modernist practice
Modernist culture and the internalization of “deviance”
Dissonance, plurality and hegemony in modernist art
Modernism, form, and the crisis of production
Crisis and catastrophe as modernist hyper-object
Political or aesthetic antagonism in the texts of modernism
Crisis, solidarity, and community in modernist writing
Disillusion, alienation, and the perpetuity of ontological crisis
Queer modernism and heteronormative society
Miscegenation, impurity, and phobia in the modernist text
Modernism and marginality or liminality
Modernism and the crisis of massification: high, middle, and low-brow modernisms