Modern Language Association
Viewing convention Program information from 2009

Session Details

Monday, 28 December

150. Unboxing Modernism: Beyond the Divides

10:15–11:30 a.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon A, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the Modernist Studies Association

Presiding: Melba Cuddy-Keane, Univ. of Toronto

Speakers: Ann L. Ardis, Univ. of Delaware, Newark; Michael Leja, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Anita Patterson, Boston Univ.; Steven G. Yao, Hamilton Coll.

For abstracts, visit

Author Comment
Subject: After Unboxing
My goodness, what an astonishing feature this comment box is, and I'm happy to start off the conversation. But first let me thank the amazing members of our roundtable, who offered such rich, condensed, and stimulating overviews of the border-crossings in which they've been actively involved. Thanks too to the MSA members who wrote to me about their own work; I was able to display only a fraction of the many new developments in the field, but hope to find some further way of bringing together the fine range of examples I was able to collect. My third real appreciation is for the audience, who helped to make this session one in which we did "real work." It's easy to celebrate "unboxings," and that's one thing the session was designed to do. But together we started to unearth the questions and the problems that mark an entrance into the next phase. For me, two significant issues linger at least: How do we not lose the insights and knowledge in earlier scholarship, even as we seek new formations? And what kind(s) of "field coherence" might replace the boxes, so that unboxing doesn't just leave us with a lot of litter on the floor? Is it worth thinking next about open and overlapping frames? The productive discussion we engaged in I'm sure will continue, either in this forum or at future forums at MSA/MLA. I look forward to hearing more views. Melba Cuddy-Keane
Subject: My Notes from the Panel:
I quickly typed up a digest of my notes from sitting in the audience at this panel. I've pasted them below in the hope that will be of some use. Apologies if I've miscontrued anything (and invitation for correction in this valuable forum!):

Introducing this panel, Melba Cuddy-Keane provided a brief outline of the development of modernist studies from 1970s to the present, from the consolidation of definitions of modernism in terms of formal experimentalization, to the recognition of the exclusions of such formulations (broadly speaking, this narrative seems applicable to literary studies as a whole). Our own period, she suggests, is one of refusing of closure—of attempting to keep the very definition of modernism open. The panelists, she suggests, offer visions of how this might be achieved.

Broadly speaking, the panelists seemed to split into two groups: Ann Ardis and Michael Leja were interested in locating modernism within a larger frame of cultural reference, taking modernism out of the hermetically sealed “box” of high culture (to use the somewhat abused metaphor dominating the panel). Leja was interested in showing the similarities between modernist art (construed broadly enough to include abstract expressionism) and larger developments in visual culture. Ardis discussed periodical studies as providing one avenue that can enrich our understanding of the period, by forcing us to return to the complexity of the primary source. She mentioned anonymous/pseudonymous/collective authorship, and the complex international circulation of such periodicals, as obvious areas of interest. Anita Patterson and Steven Yao were interested in challenging the geography of modernism, locating modernism within a transnational framework. Patterson’s work focuses on modernist poets connected to the Americas (Jules Laforgue, St. John Perse, Wilson Harris). Yao’s work focuses on the Pacific, particularly with the fascination of some modernists with translating works they could not really read (all those poems “from the Chinese”).

In the comments, the provocative question of whether “modernism” was even a valuable term anymore was raised. Panelists did not seem to come to any consensus about this important question, and (alack!) the panel ended before it was fully pursued.

The panelists also provided a helpful run down of some of the most interesting recent works in modernist studies. Among the works mentioned were:

- Christopher Bush, Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media(Oxford Univ. Press, 2010)

- Pacific Rim Modernisms, edited by Mary Ann Gilles, Helen Sword, and Steven Yao (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2009)

- Lesley Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell Univ. Press, 2008)

- Pericles Lewis, Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010)
Subject: continuing the conversation
Hi Chris,
Thank you so much for this excellent summary. And I'm glad to know that you thought there were still many things left to say! I agree.
I'd just like to add my point about the inevitable tension between knowledge and structure (no knowledge without structure but structure always limiting and skewing our knowledge). That is, those of us who want to keep working on "modernism" (and I do!) need to be wary about reductive definitions, but we need some structure(s) just the same.
That's why I want to pursue the idea of "field coherence" or in Mark Wollaeger's lovely phrase, "family resemblances," as an alternative to "definition." Looser, more flexible structures, with an awareness that we are choosing to focus on them, not that they are all that is. Such an approach would allow us still to engage "modernism" as something we can talk together about.
best, Melba

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