Saturday, February 28, 2009

Corregidora and Irrelevant Modernism

I am really glad that Richard points out that I sort of abandoned Corregidora in my post supposedly about the novel. And he also leads me to realize that my comments about modernism being irrelevant to at least some literature didn't make much sense. I returned the book to the library, unfortunately, so I won't really be able to address the novel any more substantively than I already have, but I will try to clarify my argument about modernism.

I said, "After reading Corregidora, Birkerts's critique that she slights the value of modernism's experimentalism comes to seem like a wholly different conversation; Jones doesn't dialogue with Joyce or Pound because they simply aren't relevant to her project, to what she means by 'liberation,' to what experiments she conducts." After a rather disingenuous set of asterisks, I broadened the claim: "The idea that modernism is not overwhelmingly relevant to every literary object is perhaps one of the most radical positions one can take at the moment. Our feelings and affective associations (even more than our ideas) about modernism structure everything about the categorization, evaluation, and historicization of literary objects."

I think those asterisks were disingenuous because I really meant for the broader claim to pick up immediately from the previous paragraph, so that modernism would be understood very specifically in Birkerts's terms, and would refer to the highest of high modernisms—to Joyce and Pound. What I meant to emphasize was that modernism as an idea of something unprecedented, unrepeatable, and comprehensively meaningful was not something that one has to accept in order to write, even experimentally. The idea that modernism must be responded to, must be considered, included, accounted for in order to create serious or meaningful literature after modernism is not something I believe, and I think Jones can be read as fairly ambivalent about. Joyce doesn't need to appear in her critical account of the development of African-American narrative, nor what Joyce represents, and modernism doesn't have to be a felt presence in her fiction—and you don't really get much of a modernist presence in Corregidora—Baldwin and Ann Petry certainly, and Nella Larsen, probably; Zora Neale Hurston was rediscovered by Alice Walker the very year Corregidora was published, so that influence is less likely. But this is most definitely not the Pound Era speaking or being addressed.

What I wanted to say was: Modernism is not the mandatory hub of literary history, the station at which all trains must stop however briefly.

Richard argues for a very different conception of modernism than the one Birkerts uses (and the one I was most directly trying to critique), but Richard's conception is no less comprehensive—quoting Gabriel Josipovici, he offers modernism as "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself." In a different post, "the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, 'conventional' ways are simply not suitable, not justified." Later in that same post, he quotes Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder: "Modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond."

As you can see, this is not really that different from what I demur from about Birkerts's modernism: the monumentality, the can't-go-back, the sheer aesthetic imperialism of modernism is what I want to back away from. Not because I think modernism should be forgotten or ignored, but that writing can be good, important, serious, innovative even if it doesn't pass through modernism explicitly, or really much care if it is passing through it implicitly. Whether you conceive it as a neat periodization or an ongoing, always emergent event, the idea that not to address it is folly is something I would like to think past.

Well, not so much think past as feel past: to me, what is held in common by Birkerts and McCarthy is a set of affective associations more than ideological commitments or theories about literary history. Monumentality, irreversibility, etc. are, I think, more about how we feel about modernism than anything that can actually be established as historically valid.

What I mean, therefore, by positing the irrelevance of modernism to Corregidora or to Jones's project more broadly, is that it is affectively irrelevant, that one does not have to acquiesce to those feelings about modernism in order to understand what Jones is doing or why. Jones's incorporation of oral culture into Corregidora does not need to be channeled through our affective associations about modernism in order for us to note, comprehend, or appreciate what she is doing and how it is, after all, innovative.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Hi Andrew - thanks for expanding on your thoughts here. I hope to address these issues in an upcoming post or two. For now, let me say that I think I haven't been as clear as I'd like. I think the question is less that modernism must be a referent for everybody, but that modernism, if we must look at it as a period in time, indicates issues that are important. It certainly makes little sense to argue that all literature must bow towards it. What about literature that has no knowledge of it? Or operates away from its centres? The question, then, as I understand it, is what lessons does modernism have for us?

I think your posts about Morrison, and your comments about what Jones is doing (the importance of oral culture in their work, for instance), are helpful. Because one of the lessons, I think, is less about experimentation, per se, than about the justification of borrowed forms.

Let me leave it there, for now, since this requires more than can be spat out in a comment. But thanks again for revisiting (and for the links!).