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A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, edited by Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz

Reviewed by Byron Taylor, University College London

A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, edited by Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. £24.00. ISBN: 9780231165211.


Calls to globalise and ‘de-colonise’ the curriculum can be heard from across the spectrum of Western education in recent years. For some it is a moral injunction, for others a point of debate. However, according to Hayot and Walkowitz in their recent Introduction, it may be a redundant demand: the global is the modern, and modernity inescapably global. If we recognise their synonymy, they ask, ‘Why, then, do we need the phrase “global modernism” at all?’ (7) Thus, this brilliant collection not only contributes to such contemporary debates, but views this recognition as its end-point. Modernism and the global are here collapsed through a series of terms, each occupying its own chapter, some canonical (‘Style’; ‘Tradition’; ‘Antiquity’) and others less so (‘Puppets’; ‘Pantomime’; ‘Slum’). Each author approaches their term in varying, exhilarating and original strategies. Every term in the collection’s ‘vocabulary’ is interrogated, subverted and redirected in fascinating and novel ways, while a rigorous, articulate sense of purpose remains consistent throughout. 

           However, the chapters do not so much reject all previous scholarship on their topics, as recognise where prior associations have fallen short. Christopher Reed’s first chapter, ‘Alienation,’ acknowledges the Marxist, Brechtian and Existentialist connotations this term usually acquires, but casts them aside to redefine the alienation of many modernists as wilful and deliberate. Those who ventured to 1920s Paris realised ‘foreignness can serve as an alibi for many forms of deviance’ (13); and we too, as critics, are blind-sighted if we see Orientalism as a one-way street. If we ‘overlook the cross-cutting trajectories of alienation, so too do we overlook historiographies of Orientalism and primitivism conceived in binary terms.’ (22) He concludes that alienation is not just a political definition, but an aesthetics in both Western and Eastern modernist art. 

           Efthymia Rentzou’s ambitious entry, ‘Animal’, seeks to re-evaluate a modernity we often equate with the binary between humans and machines. Accommodating Darwin and Rousseau in its sweep, her chapter argues that Freud’s work suggests the ‘conscious/unconscious reproduces, to some degree, the human/animal dichotomy, with language again as the dividing line.’ (31) It is little wonder, she goes on to say, that Oswald de Andrade urged his Brazilian contemporaries to reject European culture through ‘the trope of animality.’ (38) To ‘make it new,’ in a culturally-specific sense, Brazilian modernism tapped ‘into a source that is as universal as the human but that uproots the fundamental assumptions of Western thought about the human.’ (38-9)

           David Damrosch, whose influence on world and comparative literature is extensive, next argues that ‘Antiquity’ is a fallacy to begin with: ‘No one ever lived in antiquity. People live only in the present, and in that sense every culture has always been modern at any given time.’ (43) Through a survey of Egyptian, Hebraic and Hellenic texts, he insists that the very notion of ‘antique’ and ‘modern’ is open to challenge. Future research of ‘global modernisms,’ in the plural sense, ‘will need to bring together studies of early modernities and their different antiquities in many parts of the world.’ (56) Such conclusions are typical of a collection that turns definitions upside down, proving how restrictive our present terminologies have become.

       Calling ‘Context’ into question, Christopher Bush searches for correlation between José Rizal and Oscar Wilde’s 1887 output, to demonstrate that while ‘Modernism was global,’ (89) historicising will only take us so far. ‘We need theoretical, even speculative models of what modern was, is, or might still become’ (89) In such fashion, Jacob Edmond’s ‘Copy’ deviates from the well-worn paths of Walter Benjamin and Marxist critique, to instead explore how telegrams and advertising filtered their way into Ezra Pound, Dimitri Prigov and Jorge Luis Borges’s poetry. Next, Johan Ramazani invests ‘Form’ with a national rather than stylistic purchase. Engaging largely in Franco Moretti and Frederic Jameson’s arguments, Ramazani claims that works outside the Western canon often ‘passively replicate the formal codes and conventions’ (120) of more lauded texts. Rather than any Bloomian anxiety of influence, we here see ‘form’ reinterpreted as a point of infiltration in cultures peripheral to the Euro-American centre.

           Similarly, Venkat Mani sees ‘Libraries’ as a focal point for the ‘translocationalization of modernism’ (131), accommodating colonial artefacts, democratic information, and a catalogue of past traditions modernists often sought to challenge. Most interesting is his negotiation of Kemal Kurt’s novel, Ja, sagt Molly (1998), in which Molly Bloom wakes up with Gregor Samsa, before characters from Hesse, Conrad, Passos and countless others appear and circulate, coagulating into a work where ‘global modernism’ is rendered not only an academic enterprise but an artistic opportunity.

By marking ‘Obsolescence’ as a key modernist trait (via an incisive detour into Heidegger’s view of objects and utility), Mark Noble presents art and photography in which the vintage is depicted as canonical and the contemporary archaic, culminating in Maico Akiba’s images of iPhones as ancient artefacts. Where, then, he asks, do terms like ‘modernism’ secure their value? While brilliant, this chapter may well have benefited some thematic sequencing with Damrosch’s, providing a more contemporary vantage on similar inquiries. 

           Monica L. Miller and Martin Puchner’s chapters, on ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Puppets’ respectively, suggest a more eccentric detour; instead they unfold two paradigms through which Eastern and African influences seeped into Western modernism without much previous acknowledgement. What estranges them, claims Puchner, is that they ‘don’t belong to the world of the living,’ but ‘keep bobbing up, bringing something into our midst we can never fully assimilate.’ (196) David L. Pike’s ‘Slum’ continues this exploration of fresh territory. If the etymology of ‘slum’ reflects a peripheral slang that demarcates the peripheries of the metropolis, then ‘slum’ is ‘a vehicle and consequence of modernity,’ writes Pike, but ‘also a sign of its failure’ of ‘its resistance to ostensible progress.’ (200) We can hereby demarcate for ourselves the line between Modernity and the Enlightenment. Modernism, by such digressions, can be broadened into questions that are uncomfortable but revelatory.

           Perhaps the best chapter is Judith Brown’s meditation on ‘Style’. Rather than a pedestrian hallmark of literary analysis, it ‘seems to lift itself away from representation, from the real, or from history itself.’ (215) Via Deleuze and Rancière, she posits style as an Other within language, transcending linguistic difference and forming new boundaries of reference in the process. As ‘a methodological entry point,’ she concludes, style ‘offers an unlimited horizon not tied, at least in determining ways, to a historical moment, nation, or political framework… If modernism continues to be defined as a primarily formal movement pushing against the limits of representation and aesthetic tradition, its transnational re-conception brings new vocabularies to bear, new particularities, and new demands.’ (229-30)
Interrogating ‘Tradition’, Rachel Adams suggests its rejection in modernism was geographically-dependent. Mexican artists of the modernist era, by contrast, juggled political revolution with a view of tradition that demanded equality, literacy and collective welfare. In her chapter on ‘Translation’, Gayle Rogers ‘proposes thinking of the English language as an unstable medium, a fluctuating currency whose value was relative to translational collaborations.’ (249) Rather than simply listing more artists under the rubric of Modernism, says Rogers, translation studies and attention to ‘its mechanisms instead reveal both the connections and the fissures, gaps, ambivalences, and breaks’ (249) in this complex and contrary field.

           Finally, Mariano Siskind’s last chapter provides another watermark in this innovative collection. While his previous work has already contributed to Latin American and comparative discourse impressively, he here moves seamlessly through Blaise Cendrars, Lucio V. Mansilla and F. T. Marinetti in a historical narrative impeccably formulated. No longer, claims Siskind, should we assume in British, French, German and American modernism ‘an objective proximity to the corpses spread across the battlefield,’ (265) and confer on it a privileged account of the event. Instead, global conflict, should be read as the key point of reference upon which what we deem modernist – whatever and wherever its origin – should converge.

           The chapter finishes a tremendously successful publication, which achieves what all collections should: while Hayot and Walkowitz’s editorial guidance is evident, in the consistency through which the authors address their respective terms, it has not come at the cost of thematic scope or individual originality. By the same token, one can equally imagine any of its contributions stimulating plenty of debate in their own right: whether discussed in an article, a conference or a seminar, each contribution would subtly, through varying and diverse strategies, stimulate debate on the overall recognition hereby achieved. Knowledge of the global, and the strides to modernity, are, indeed, inseparable: by the end of the collection, it feels difficult to imagine a time when this point did not feel obvious. As Christopher Bush puts it, as critics, we may not be able to do everything: ‘Certainly not, but must we therefore keep doing the same things?’ (89) Varied, but without contradiction, unusual, but not without peerless rigour, A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism provides an energetic and original slant on its field, that all further research in modernism, world and comparative debate would be foolish - indeed ‘traditional,’ ‘antiquated’ even - to ignore.