On N+1's "World Lite"

I'm teaching a graduate class called "Global Cities" this fall, and when I was casting about for a text to use for the first 75 minute session it occurred to me that the recent essay by the editors of N+1, "World Lite," should be it.

I just got out of that session and it seemed like it worked: my students seemed engaged and interested in the arguments. Most had not heard of many of the authors the editors mention. The exercise gave me a chance to do quick spiels on Mario Vargas Llosa, Ngugi, Benedict Anderson, and a few others. So before we go any further I should credit the N+1 editors for writing something provocative and stimulating.

At Tehelka, Pooja Rajaram and Michael Griffith posted a spirited and intelligent critique. The editors have responded to that critique with some clarifications of their main intention and argument.

I'm not going to take issue with the central claim the N+1 Editors are making in "World Lite"; in any case, I feel pretty sure that the editors have defined their terms loosely enough that my main criticisms could be easily parried. As I understand it, their primary interest is in criticizing the "Global Lit" marketplace, and positing instead an "internationalist" literature that preserves (or revives) some of the confrontational energy and edginess of an earlier generation of postcolonial authors from the 1970s and 80s ("angry Rushdie," "angry Gordimer," and early Ngugi are favored; later Rushdie, "Wizard of the Crow" Ngugi, the abstractions of Coetzee, Murakami, Pamuk, and many others are not).

Let's just look briefly at what might be the nub of my disagreement with their periodization of "internationalism" -- their characterization of modernism.
Literary modernism in the strict sense — the “last literary season of Western culture,” Franco Moretti has called it — was a more international than national phenomenon. This was a virtue made partly out of necessity, since modernism was nowhere locally popular. Ulysses, written in Zurich and Trieste, published in Paris in 1922, and unprintable at home in Dublin, became an event in London and Berlin. Futurism was current in Italy, but also Soviet Russia and even, through Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, England. Surrealism was French (Breton) and Spanish (Lorca), but also Brazilian (Mario de Andrade) and Chilean (Huidobro). Little magazines and publishing houses set up in capital cities all over. Yet much as the general air of revolution had invigorated modernism with a sense of enormous imminent change, the repression of revolution knocked the wind out of it. The failure of socialist insurrection in Germany and Italy in the ’20s, paving the way for fascism; the success of the generals’ uprising in Spain (during which Lorca was killed); the frigid congealing of Stalinism (which put to death modernists as varied as Mandelstam, Babel, and Pilnyak) — these thinned the ranks of international modernism and demoralized its troops. (link)

The idea that modernism was more an international than a national phenemenon is certainly right (see my notes last year on my course on "Transatlantic Modernism").  And I strongly agree with the editors' emphasis on the little magazine culture as an element in that internationalism. That's how the British futurist Mina Loy, who lived in Italy and had ties to Marinetti and Italian futurism, was able to publish her first poems in New York-based little magazines like Others and Rogue. It's also how Ezra Pound leveraged himself to become the central arbiter of English-language modernist poetry in the 1910s (his residency in London and sheer pushiness and swagger got him a gig as the "Foreign Editor" of Little Review -- a position that benefited the visibility of the magazine as well as his own career).

But the part that seems strange in this periodization is the idea that “repression of revolution” knocked the wind out of modernism. It’s much more complicated than that. For one thing, many of the most influential modernists were either apolitical or actively reactionary – modernism was never neatly aligned with leftist revolutionary politics. (The most infamous example here being the aforementioned Ezra Pound.) But I would also argue that the first mini-decline of modernism actually happened immediately after modernism first emerged – with the beginning of World War I, avant-garde publishing in England slowed to a trickle (leaving an opening for American magazines like Poetry and Little Review to take the lead during the war years). Another decline happened once Ezra Pound left Paris (1925) and T.S. Eliot converted to Christianity (1928), whereupon he stopped writing about the sexuality of London shopgirls [i.e., The Waste Land] and started writing about the glories of the Anglican Church. A third, more definitive decline would have to be the Great Depression, which led to a new generation of socially conscious writers like Auden and Isherwood – writers who were active Leftists and who rejected the obscurity and difficulty of writers of the earlier generation. The decline here was caused not by activist writers being beaten down by repressive governments. If anything, the progressivism of the Auden generation saw the preceding generation (i.e., "modernism") as insufficiently political.

Why all of this is important to their broader argument: if we are looking for an activist “internationalist” literature, as the authors of this essay seem to be, we won’t find it in the avant-gardist / high modernist moment. Modernism was a much more chronologically fractured and politically ambiguous literary event than the N+1 account allows.

Even the internationalism needs an asterisk. While all the American writers in England and France, and the expatriate Irish (Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Edna O'Brien...) seem to embody through their very act of emigration a certain internationalism, it's not necessarily clear to me that modernism as it unfolded in western Europe was much connected what was happening elsewhere, in Berlin, in Moscow, etc. Vorticism did indeed appropriate Italian futurism, but it turned out to be basically a a two man show -- and a one-trick pony (Pound abandoned it after a year, just as he had abandoned Imagism earlier when Amy Lowell tried to coopt it). In short, there were borrowings back and forth of style and technique, but I have my doubts as to whether there was really an active "internationalist" spirit, at least in literary terms. 

Let's look at another paragraph from the essay, where N+1 makes a distinction between high modernism and late modernist style: 

Tidings of war and revolution accompanied European literature for only a few years after 1945. The term “modernism” became current in the ’50s and ’60s, when the thing itself was expiring. The so-called late modernism of the postwar — of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Sarraute; of Peter Handke, Nabokov, and John Barth, as well as the earlier texts of Kafka and Borges that now attained a vast audience — feels very different from the “high modernism” of Joyce or Woolf, Bely or Dos Passos or Döblin. Titles from these writers include Dubliners (1914), “Kew Gardens” (1919), Petersburg (1913), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). There is, by contrast, a kind of geographical and social underspecification about much of the best Euro-American literature published after World War II, which, in the most striking cases, turns deep personal peculiarity into a gnarled universality. (link)

I have no objection to the local point here that high modernist writing looks very different from late modernist writing, though they seem to be jumping over the key point that the later modernist writing seems to be eschewing geographical specificity precisely because their predecessors worked through it to the point of exhaustion. (So for example, Beckett, after early experiments like More Pricks than Kicks, stopped mentioning Dublin places and names because James Joyce had already seemingly exhausted all of them in Ulysses. But both writers were interested in psychology and subjectivity…)

I do think mentioning just Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” is a bit idiosyncratic (it supports their point about localization in high modernism). In fact after Mrs. Dalloway (which is very much a London novel, rich with place names and geo-historical specificity), Woolf’s modernism is also quite delocalized – a high modernist work like To the Lighthouse could take place anywhere. Or is Mrs. Dalloway (1925) High modernism while To the Lighthouse (1928) is Late?

In short, I think N+1 is getting their reading of modernism a bit wrong. It doesn't necessarily undercut the force of their critique of the literary festival circuit or the slowing of the momentum that the first generation of postcolonial writers seemed to have -- their anger, their outspokenness, and the personal risks so many of those writers took to speak truth to power. (Not just Rushdie -- think of Ken Saro-Wiwa!) But it does suggest that the internationalism they are looking for, and connecting, unconvincingly to my eye, to a handful of emerging "good" internationalists -- while consigning aesthetically ambitious, socially-engaged writers like Junot Diaz and Teju Cole to the category of bad "Global Lit" -- does not really have a precedent.