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The Zombification of Critical Approaches to Recentish Literary Product

By Andrew Hodgson.

Francine: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, what they used to do. This was a [mandatory module] in their [undergrad].
— Dialogue from the ‘Undead Shopping Mall’ scene, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)


I will preface this brief, nattering sort of post about words, how we use them, and recent critical practice with caveat. The term ‘Modernism’ and the descriptor ‘modernist’ as they are now found demand such caveat, as (as the frail gesture of pluralisation in current framings of modernism(s?) demonstrates) these words have begun to slip the noose of determinable referentiality and threaten to fall into utter contingency. If literary historians, similar to the ‘medievalists’ or the ‘Victorianists,’ wish to refer to themselves and their work on historico-literary modernism as modernist, work approaching the triumvirate of the Joyce and the Kafka and the Proust (+ secondaried menagerie) between the 1910s – 1930s, this classicked application of the term would perhaps appear fairly benign. I see very few reservations to be raised with the ‘#modernist friends,’ their close reading discussions and citation queries when here addressing the state of critical approaches to recentish literary product. However, it is this overt shift in who or what exactly is the modernist in the critical equation (the writer, the text, the critical work, the critic?), that has perhaps revealed a reductive and troubling groundwork in current discourse. To participate in the discourse of modernisms is to watch, to contribute to a rapid delimiting, closing down, boxing off of the erratic complexities of societal histories and vast variation in those societies’ cultural production of the last two hundred(ish) years.

The issues within, around the term modernism, and the current critical treatment of recent literary artefacts and their environmental histories appear here intertwined. The troubling frailties in each seem to suggest that both are undergoing a moment of fundamental crisis. The crises apparent in this term modernism would here appear as above-sea-level section of the iceberg; the more visible sign of more profound disintegrations and dysfunctions occurring below. And as such, the trouble with this word is revealing of an interaction, a causal relation which indicates a collapse, a loss of difference, distance and variation in the formerly distinct words of modern (epochal?), modernity (socio-experiential?) and that they might more clearly signify (beyond my bracketed suggestions), into the isming cannibalisation processes of a critical modernism. Here, I suggest the topoi and topography of recentish cultural history is undergoing a process of selection and assimilation: a “socio-evolutionist levelling of material history” that is indicative of a cultural-critical process of all-devouring, zombifying hysteresis.

To begin, as all good critical writing surely must, with entirely anecdotal evidence. Tweeting from the T. S. Eliot Summer School in London this year, Cécile Varry reported that Joanna Rzepa was “finally addressing the elephant in the room”: “why do we never engage with the original theological meaning of ‘modernist’?” Responding in accord, and linking that missing elephant to the recent Troublesome Modernisms conference (also London), Alexandra Peat wrote that the theological meanings of the word are “in the air now.” It would appear revealing that Varry (U. Diderot, France), Rzepa (formerly of U. Jagiellonian, Poland) and Peat (U. Franklin, Switzerland) each engage with this word modernism in a mode starkly at contrast with that heavily orthodoxied within Anglo-American cultural-critical schema. To load the anecdotal here: after dedicating the first third of my doctoral thesis to trying to discern a way to speak about modern and contemporary literary culture without the strictures of the art-literature-sociology-psychology-philotheory combinational monolith of critical modernism, at the defence of that thesis at Université Paris Est (France), I was repeatedly asked “why did you waste so much time discussing these terms? They don’t mean anything like that here.” It became clear: my anglo-centrism was showing.

A pertinent account cited to convince reader that which I have given in anecdote has critical founding. To refer to Béatrice Joyaux-Prunel, as she describes “modernisme” in introduction to Les avant-gardes artistiques 1848-1918 : une histoire transnationale (2015):

We might understand this word in broader strokes as a representation of the present world, that is, within an ideology generally favourable to new techniques in literary writing and artistic practice. However, we should be careful not to overuse this term […] Modernismo is, for late-19th century Spain, a literary movement inspired by romanticism, symbolism and Parnassus, and is a continuation of an artistic tendency which we call Art Nouveau. The squabbles of “Modernisme” at the start of the 20th century refer, largely in France and Italy, to the long crisis caused by a new multiplicity in historical readings of the Bible – notably those of Alfred Loisy. This tendency became assimilated into liberal Protestantism, and therefore a challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church, and was disavowed by Pope Pius X in 1907 (1). Nor should we understand “modernisme” in the strict sense given in Anglo-American criticism: Modernism describes the movements developing out of impressionism, it is largely concerned with questions of form, of which the paragon would be cubism.

As this lengthy, though much (much) abridged quotation infers, the critical crisis presented in the strict formalism of Modernism (rather than modernisme, Modernisme or Modernismo), and the cultural crisis that perhaps infers in our attempts to comprehend recent cultural history through “socio-evolutionist” reduction is, as Peter Brooker writes in Modernism/Postmodernism (1992), “a somewhat parochial topic in Anglo-American culture.” They are terms and attendant values that, up until the recent foundation of ‘American Studies’ as a distinct subject in French universities, held little to no ground in literary criticism in France. That this discourse is largely missing from critical spaces outside the Anglo-American is starkly apparent when engaging in those spaces. To continue with the French context: in Qu’est-ce que la littérature ? (1948), Jean-Paul Sartre referred to the writers that had their “heyday in the 1920s,” that make up our standardised course texts of modernism, as writing “second generation naturalism” (2). In Du surréalisme en ses œuvres vives (1953) André Breton stated that one of that group described by Sartre, James Joyce, “does not hesitate to take his place within a long line of naturalists.” Still in 2005 in Lire le réalisme et le naturalisme Colette Becker presented another figure of that “heyday,” Virginia Woolf, again as a latterly development of “naturalism.” Similarly Michael Löwy in Walter Benjamin : avertissement d’incendie (2018) describes Benjamin’s theoretical writing as demonstrative of a “romantic modernity,” or a “surrealist marxism” that “interrupts the continuum of history” formed by the “two vast camps” that constitute the current “hegemony” in critical thought: “modernism and postmodernism.” Which would perhaps at a glance appear counterintuitive from a British or American footing, where critical interactions with either entity is often heavily reliant on readings of Benjamin. However, Löwy here is not referring to the sequential oppositions defined by Anglo-American attempts to transpose developmental linearity on twentieth century cultural history. He refers to the dual, intertwined meeting of “Habermasian modernism-Lyotardian postmodernism,” existing and interacting in the same moment of discourse, and which refers rather to the terms of modernism in their application in epistemic philosophy. To draw this absence of the critical totality of (post/)modernism(s) concretely into literary criticism, in response to John Barth’s The Literature of Replenishment (1980) Gérard Genette wrote in Palimpsestes (1982) of the concepts of a literature of “modernism” and a conflicting/reflexive literature of “postmodernism” as of “no clear pertinence.” For Genette, these conceptualisations were entirely alien to clear comprehension of twentieth century literary history: not only do the “frontiers between the modern and postmodern literatures seem very fragile,” but therefore so too the grouped literatures themselves. And perhaps this is at core the fundamental problem.

As the dates of some of these references here suggest, these crises in Anglo-American critical treatment of the modern, of modernity are nothing new: the new faults in a critical discourse of modernisms follow the scars of the old critical discourse of modernisms from which it has emerged. This dysfunction is environmental, it is inherited through its domination of taught, discussed and published histories of literary culture, and it is largely peculiar to the Anglo-American critical space — the term modernism and its various appendages finding its feet in a post-Second World War discourse that drew definitional lines of comparison, similarity and contrast in literary material and historical contexts to their own cultural moment a posteriori. A critical practice that was revived in the early years of the twenty-first century in a new drive to impose developmental progression in literary style and evolutionary linearity in history: in terms and/or framings like mid-modernism (3), “intermodernism” (4); permamodernism (5).

To cite, perhaps with some irony at this juncture, Fredric Jameson: this is a critical process of building “frail retrospective alignments” in literary culture, that would appear to have, though mutated, continued to our today. If those critical approaches of a decade ago broke the corpus of material of (post/)modernism(s) from their historicised bounds, the new processes of modernisms would seem to act to pad out that developmental, contiguous skeleton. Modernism as a critical process would appear to have, to continue to, as Raymond Williams writes, give “a highly selected version of the modern which then offers to appropriate the whole of modernity.” An impulse to the over-definitional that already in 1973, the British experimental writer Brigid Brophy attacked as perpetuating a “Vasari’s Corridor fallacy” in recent literary, and lived, history.

To return to Joyaux-Prunel in 2015, the projects of critical modernism would appear to

accept without hesitation a linear conception of history and, with it, the historical determinism that underpins the myth of “the future,” and its resultant evolutionist implications.

And we are left with the question of why? Why this dysfunctional relation between critical approach and literary product developed in this strange rendering of recently passed, and still active history into a space of strict selection, rejection and assimilation. Under a banner that cannot currently contain itself, let alone critically contain the two hundred (give or take) years of cultural production it has ballooned to describe. If now it is semi-normalised in practices like ‘#modernist friends,’ this is perhaps a result of this process of hypertrophy of separation of critical approach from literary material — in the Anglo-American space, it has perhaps always largely been, the critical work that constitutes the “Modernism,” the critic that is the “modernist.” Which leaves the questions both of what it means to ‘modernismise’ previously un- or otherwise-coded texts, figures and socio-historical contexts, and what becomes of those classicked of the “1920s heyday.” To draw my here nattering into connection to the Chestertonite initial piece that began this conversation, a descriptive image. As G. K. Chesteron writes in his abandoned biography of Charles Dickens (a reference that can be found in Benjamin’s unfinished/lost ‘Arcades Project’):

Dickens […] mentions, among the coffee shops into which he crept in those wretched days, one in St. Martin’s Lane, ‘of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with COFFEE ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood.’

If the literary product generally culled in this critical modernism process is that with an aesthetic potential to strike the reader, the critic in a similar sense to “that wild word,” as Chesterton describes it, then it is a critical process that would seem to perform an aesthetic inversion: in which a MOOR EEFFOC is recoded The Coffee Room. And so indeed, the why. What’s that all about?

Whether a product of instability, paranoia or fragility in human experience and societal foundation in the latter half of the twentieth century that we now inherit, reduction as an inherent product of the pressures of the neo-liberal university now (as it approaches its zenith or collapse) or the combination of a myriad of these and other catalysts, motivations and contexts, in this short blog post there is not space to probe. Or, perhaps, it is within this moment of critical crises, seemingly indicative of wider cultural troubles, growing evermore apparent that such questions cannot be clearly answered. Which brings me to the trailed zombie comparison pay off underlying this piece. As a term taken to refer to a grouping of literary works, however in practice, the branding of a critical process the functional application of “Modernism” now in the 21st century takes on the sense of a hysteresis loop. A critical circuit within which the processes of critical modernism continue to carry out pre-coded interactions with the environment in which it functions, though those environmental conditions have long since altered, changed, or entirely evaporated. The continuation of critical modernism in its new +s formulation therefore acts to patch over new faults now opening up in those old formulations of modernisms no longer actively maintained. The new discourse of critical modernism continues to carry out the actions of long dead orthodoxies in modern and contemporary literary history and as such carries out a cannibalisation of the living in the name of the continuation of the dead, as a contagious devourer; a critical zombie (6).

And so, perhaps, it is the time to try to let go of the grand overarching developmental narratives, the all-encompassing cannibal terminology. Now that it is clear there is indeed trouble within this modernism, it is perhaps the time to try to explore new modes of critical approach that both attempt to address this impulse of (post/)modernism(s) in the Anglo-American cultural-critical space, however that too tries to generate ways to comprehend the spaces dominated by that coding with a new, and revealing sense of multiplicity. Now, in this moment of critical self-reflection that might present itself as a window by which critical attempts to comprehend recentish history, the contemporary and its literary product can move beyond the overwhelming gravitational centres of the (Joyc/Proust)eans, (Kafka)esques and (Modern)isms. In Jacques Rancière’s Les temps modernes (2018), a book originally targeted at an anglophone audience as Modern Times (2017), he meets this current critical climate. As he argues: “we could write a long list of the contradictions and paradoxes” that demonstrate the inadequacies of past and present attempts at classifying recent history by overarching linear progression models (“the avant-garde”), or a singular developmental, expanding sequence of “modernisms.” “But it is enough to here state” that the liminality between, within, these critical classifications indicate that “there is not one, but many ‘modern times,’” that exist in parallel, in conflict, in separation, and as such within a wide field of non-linear connectivity. As Rancière implores the critic:

It is time to understand that, counter to what is accepted, the notions of modernity, modernism and avant-garde imply an overlapping of different temporalities, a complex play of relations between anticipation and delay, fragmentation and continuity, movement and immobility. Time is not simply a line stretched between a past and a future. It is also, and primarily, a milieu in which humans live.

In Invisible Author: Last Essays (2002) Christine Brooke-Rose similarly entered a plea for attempts to develop the twenty-first century critical space’s potential to plurality:

a plea for an attempt to reunify all the many and now scattered ways of enthusing about a necessarily chameleon text and transmitting that enthusiasm without killing the chameleon through summary, ideology, a rigidly held theory, or imposition of abstract structures that have only a limited relevance to any text, using a sort of chameleon or even magpie criticism, that uses the best of past isms without fear of unfashion, and this or that theory if it can enhance understanding, but above all, genuine enjoyment, insight, imagination.

As a “chameleon” critical pivot from the zombifying critical orthodoxy, to critical observation of the literary work, historical human experience in its proper complexity, plurality and multiplicity, Rancière and Brooke-Rose perhaps raise ways in which this term Modernism might be moved beyond, and let finally to die, back in its twentieth century.


(1) Given Eliot’s committed Anglo-Catholicism, it is perhaps pertinent that this “Modernisme” is finally elephanted at a summer school dedicated specifically to study of that figure, though would indeed perhaps be much more troublesome to equate to the wider given examples of Anglo-American codings of a historico-literary modernism.

(2) It is around about these lines of critical coding that Joyce was approached in earlier attempts to meet his work in the Anglo-American context too, for example in John Rodker’s contribution to Our Examination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), or Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction (1941). Notably in that last, the word “modernism” makes no appearance other than in a postscript added by Levin in 1960, speaking of that later moment as one of transition from “modernism” into the “post-modern period” (an example of the collapsing of ismed literary style and labelling of historical period that, as described in this post, perhaps presents one of the troubles with this word).

(3) Marina Mackay & Lindsay Stonebridge, British Fiction After Modernism: The Novel at Mid-Century (2007).

(4) Kisten Bluemel, Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain (2009).

(5) Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2011)

(6) This clarifying of a ‘zombifying critical hysteresis’ very much drawing from the discussions of the zombie found in Sara Juliet Lauro & Karen Embry, ‘A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism’ in Boundary 2 (2008).

Andrew Hodgson is Postdoctoral Teaching and Research Fellow at Université Paris Est. He is author of the monograph The Post-War Experimental Novel: British and French Fiction, 1945 – 1975 (Bloomsbury, 2019) and the novel Mnemic Symbols (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019). He edited the experimental writing collection Paris (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019), and translated from the French Roland Topor’s Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Atlas Press, 2019), and from the Danish, Carl Julius Salomonsen’s New Forms of Art and Contagious Mental Illness (New Documents, 2019).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 24th, 2019.