Modernisms after Modernism
ENGL 540 A / C LIT 549
Professor Monika Kaup
Modernism after Modernism
Modernism is far from over. This course examines the afterlife of modernism after the end of modernism's historical period (ca. 1890 - 1950). An revival of modernism is underway among 21st-century writers (such as Tom McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, Marilynne Robinson) whose work pays homage to key modernist writers (such as Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, E.M. Forster, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett), at times to the extent of reinventing the plot of canonical modernist pieces (Woolf's Mrs Dalloway in Cunningham's The Hours; Forster's Howard's End in Smith's On Beauty; James's The Ambassadors in Ozick's Foreign Bodies). Tom McCarthy, author of the neo-modernist novel C (2010)--one of the five novels we will be reading--has gone so far as to state that "the task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism." But this 21st-century revival is only the latest manifestation of the persistence of modernist experimentation in post-WW II as well as postcolonial literature, which emerged in the post-WW II era, and much of which was produced in close dialogue with modernism. Notably, today’s return to modernism takes place in the context of the much-discussed demise of postmodernism. Ironically, modernism’s claim to novelty has displaced that of postmodernism/postmodernity, once claimed to have unseated modernism from the forefront of culture at the end of the 20th century.
We will be reading five novels, published between 1968 and 2010, by anglophone writers--including postcolonial and minority writers; see below—who have styled their literary innovations in explicit dialogue with modernist precursors. We will also examine the logic of historicizing and periodizing literature: cutting off the period of modernism after WW II elides the emergence of postcolonial and minority modernisms and, more generally, global modernisms, which did not fully flourish until the second half of the 20th century. In discussing the labels assigned to contemporary literature that engages in self-conscious dialogue with historical modernism—metamodernism, remodernism, hypermodernism, digimodernism—our central questions will be: What are the stakes of designating modernism as a timeless ethos of innovation and revolution rather than as a historical period? How do we historicize the contemporary? Why does modernism survive in contemporary literature? Modernism was the first artistic movement to confront the paradoxes of the temporality of the contemporary (“nowness”). Unlike any other period, the contemporary is not historical, nor is it mere presentness. It is transient and unfinished, carrying the virtual seeds of future developments that will not be actualized until later.
Required primary works: Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya), A Grain of Wheat (1968); J.M. Coetzee (South Africa), The Life and Times of Michael K (1983); Cecile Pineda (Mexican American), Frieze (1986); Michael Cunningham (U.S.), The Hours (1999); Tom McCarthy (Britain), C (2010)
Secondary readings by Peter Osborne, Susan Stanford Friedman, David James, Laura Marcus, Fredric Jameson, Michaela Bronstein, Peter Kalliney, Rebecca Walkowitz, Zadie Smith, Michael North, Ernst Bloch, Theodore Martin, Charles Baudelaire, and others.
The course will be synchronous (live Zoom classes).
Written assignments: 10-12 pp. research paper