What Ever Happened to the Institutions of Modernism?

10/7/2022 ☼ essaywriting and research

The essays collected in Lawrence Rainey’s 1998 Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture, written and published over the previous half-decade, participated mightily in the reorientation of literary critical endeavour we have come to call the New Modernist Studies,” as did the journal he co-founded with Robert von Hallberg in 1994, Modernism/modernity.

But Lawrence (forgive the familiarity, but he was my PhD supervisor) always argued that the proximate context for the 1990s resurgence of interest in modernism was not the putative deficiency or failure of the old” modernist studies. Rather, and as Michael North lays out at some length in his contribution to Douglas Mao’s recent volume on the new” modernist studies, scholars investigating modernism three decades ago had to contend with an image of modernism that had taken hold within the academy under the aegis of of the then-dominant paradigm called postmodernism (North 2021). (Has any critical and/or periodising concept declined so quickly and from such a height?)

Andreas Huyssen succinctly set forth that image of modernism in After the Great Divide (1986), centred on the movement’s alleged insistence on the autonomy of the art work, its obsessive hostility to mass culture, its radical separation from the culture of everyday life, and its programmatic distance from political, economic, and social concerns” (Huyssen 1986, vii). Although he does not mention them implicitly, Huyssen’s account of modernism also serves to position it at some distance from the identity-driven modes of scholarship arising at that time. As North astutely notes, this image was able to proliferate in part because of the tendency in broader discussions of aesthetics and cultural debate to treat the high-modernist architecture of, say, Mies van der Rohe, as a synecdoche for modernism in general (what it might have in common with a work of literature like The Making of Americans or Ulysses was a question better left unasked) (North 2021, 28). At the same time, the circular flow of cultural and intellectual legitimacy between modernism and the New Criticism contributed to the sense of modernism’s remoteness from political, economic, and social concerns,” and I will dwell more on the basic fact disclosed here–that modernism’s canonisation occurred largely, though not exclusively, within the universities–later.

This is the straw man,” to use North’s phrase, the tearing down of which would occasion the revitalisation of modernist studies beginning in the late 1980s and through the mid-1990s. In their PMLA essay of 2008 naming the New Modernist Studies,” Mao and Walkowitz nominate expansion” as their master signifier for their new field; in the first instance, they are alluding to the canon-expanding efforts of scholars working across a variety of axes of difference, and one that impacted on all period-centered areas of literary scholarship” (Mao and Walkowitz 2008, 737). To gauge the extent of this transformation in the modernist context, we need only remind ourselves that at the beginning of the 1980s, the contention that Virginia Woolf was a major modernist could have a polemical edge, as syllabi on the modern novel focussed on constellations like Proust, Mann and Joyce. These efforts to revise the modernist canon, perhaps exemplified by Bonnie Kime Scott’s The Gender of Modernism, represented one important angle of attack on the postmodern image of modernism. Another came from scholars like David Chinitz, who, in T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, endeavoured to show that Eliot (and by extension modernist writers generally), were shaped in unexpected ways by the emergence of a cultural hierarchy between high” and low” leading up to the turn of the century, and far more apt to draw on low culture’s demotic energies than postmodernism’s putative monopoly on them would allow.

Lawrence’s contribution to this reassessment focussed on one of the signal differences between the modernism and postmodernism: the status that each (allegedly) accorded to the commodity. Whereas postmodernism would seem to have recommended a ludic embrace of the commodity form, its predecessor was supposed to have scorned the commodity and withdrawn, as far as possible, from the domain of the market. Moreover, following a distinction laid out in Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, postmodernism was positioned as the true inheritor of the continental avant-gardes, and in particular their ambition to dissolve the boundaries that separated aesthetic experience from everyday life (the postmodern realization of this ambition looks, perhaps, like Warhol at his most extreme: in the hyperrealism of the Brillo Boxes, for instance). Throughout the Institutions essays, Lawrence contested this story of patrimony. Through his account of Ezra Pound’s early London years, for instance, he established that modernism was also a child of the avant-garde: Marinetti’s techniques of patronage-seeking, coterie-building, and publicity-attracting became Pound’s own (Rainey 1998, 28–31). What Pound found valuable in Marinetti’s techniques was that they represented a new way of negotiating the increasingly violent collision of market value with aesthetic value, precisely by exploiting the increasingly hierarchical segmentation of the literary market.

Difficult, experimental and provocative literary works could transform their lack of popular appeal, that is, one form of value, into another: that of the rarefied commodity, and this is precisely what Eliot and Pound did with The Waste Land,” and what Joyce, with Sylvia Beech and Adrienne Monnier, did with Ulysses. What these, and other, modernist entrepreneurs strove to create, as against the emerging mass market, was a different economic circuit of patronage, collecting, speculation, and investment” (Rainey 1998, 3). In other words, these alleged monuments to aloof, mandarin taste, and the solitary egos of their authors, were instead the products of networks of relations between writers, editors, patrons, publishers, and collectors, and, moreover, they were commodities themselves. Looking back on these arguments, it is striking how prepared Lawrence was to countenance the potential consequences of this disjunct between market and aesthetic value: hence, having described the machinations which led The Waste Land” to be slated for publication in The Dial, and Eliot being awarded the two-thousand dollar Dial Award, before the magazine’s editors even had a chance to read the poem, Lawrence concludes:

If nothing else, reconsidering the publication history of The Waste Land might prompt us to question the dominant methodology of modern literary studies since roughly the end of World War II. Generations of students have been exhorted to look closely at the poem, to examine only the text, to indulge in a scholastic scrutiny of linguistic minutiae. Yet if we consider more fully the experience of those who actually engaged in modern textual production, assuming that the case of The Waste Land tells us anything, we might elect a rather different procedure. Indeed, if we named it in their honor, we could call it the modernist principle of reading and formulate it thus: The best reading of a work may, on some occasions, be one that does not read it at all. (Rainey 1998, 106)

Although he immediately resiles from such an extreme formulation,” the point is made: the alchemy of the commodity form is everywhere at issue in the networks that constituted Anglo-American modernism, binding Pound and Eliot’s transatlantic axis to Woolf’s coterie in Bloomsbury, to Stein’s salon in Paris, and more, in a powerful homology of forms of literary production, and by this we can recognise modernism, almost irrespective of what the works in question contain, either in content or even in form.

In an era of canon-expansion, then, Lawrence’s argument amounts to an elegantly contractionary criterion for modernism, in two senses. First, it limits membership in the modernist canon to participants in particular networks of literary production and transmission; there might have been many of these, but as coteries, they could not, by definition, include most of the writers working in a given period. Second, for scholars to have even the chance of reconstructing the specific circuits and contours of such networks, they would need to be able to examine a vast array of paraliterary texts and sources; in other words, the archive. Indeed, in his perspicacious review of the book, Edward Bishop described Lawrence’s method in Institutions as the construction of a meta-archive” (Bishop 2002, 489). As Bishop notes, the opportunity to carry out this kind of archival work at all is clearly concentrated among some scholars and graduate students and not others, principally those working in the wealthier institutions of the global north. So while the account of what modernism was that Lawrence arrived at in Institutions–and offering a putatively final or comprehensive definition of modernism was by no means that book’s stated aim–was nowhere near as male and heterosexual as the traditional account had made it, by positing such an historically specific account of its institutional structure as its foundational characteristic, this account stopped well short of including other axes of difference.

And indeed, scholars’ efforts towards recovering marginalized writers–the diversification and expansion of the canon along both identitarian and geographical axes–continued apace, as Mao and Walkowitz make plain in their 2008 essay. They describe the expansion of modernist studies in three dimensions: temporal, spatial, and [rather bafflingly] vertical” (is verticality not spatial”) (Mao and Walkowitz 2008, 737)? In any case, the vertical dimension signifies the effort to show that modernism, too, tried to erode the hierarchical distinctions between the high” and the low.” It is under this label that Lawrence’s argument is subsumed, without quite acknowledging the challenge that it poses to expansion in the temporal and spatial dimensions. By 2021, however, Mao is moved to acknowledge the doubts about expansion that have been raised by those for whom

The new modernist studies has been all too flexible. Noting, for example, how imperatives from other studies areas have contributed to the tendency to expand the reach of the term modernism,” the exponent of this perspective might urge that the new modernist studies has never been as intellectually coherent as it ought to be, or that it has been diminishingly so, and that it courts losing whatever specificity of aim it once had because its objects of analysis are essentially unlimited. (Mao 2021, 6)

Summing up, Mao writes that a further decade and a half of expanding modernist studies has left three questions vitally unresolved”:

One is whether modernism” ceases to have analytical purchase if anything can potentially be modernist; a second is whether in enlarging the reach of its central term, modernist studies has operated imperialistically and appropriatively; a third is whether the widening of the scope of modernism” is really a repackaging of an honorific term as a descriptive one. (Mao 2021, 8)

With these questions in mind, and without committing in a partisan way to Lawrence’s position, I want to at least speculate about why the agenda of expansion should so readily have disarmed and subsumed its opponents, such that what now purports to be the dominant scholarly formation in the field might be structurally incapable of answering them.

One reason may be the new modernist studies’ tendency to offer an account of itself that reaches only as far back as the circa-1990 recession of postmodernism in intellectual life that I began by describing. What this account leaves out, therefore, is the role of university literature departments in producing modernist literature as an object of study in the first place, and how, in the process, certain fantasies about aesthetic autonomy that used to attach to works of art began to attach instead to the institutions of education. At this point I think of a stray remark from a political scientist to the effect that those who take political economy seriously nonetheless tend to apply their tools of materialist analysis to just about every practice and institution apart from their own. So for us the question would run, to what extent have the activities of reading, writing, and teaching within the academy itself reproduced, even if in broad outline, the construction of modernist literature as a commodity that Institutions of Modernism described?

In venturing one of many possible answers to that question, I take my bearings from another moment in Lawrence’s work, namely his first monograph, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture, in which he indicts the literary theory and criticism of the mid-1980s for focussing on the production and reception of texts to the exclusion of their transmission, which he defines as:

The sum of processes and forces that issue in the sociomaterial instance of every work… Transmission is constituted at the intersection of material, institutional, and ideological mediation… [it] precedes every act of production or reception: writers do not engage with intertextuality,” and readers encounter only works that are presented to them in specific material forms, each presaturated with its own history of transmission. (Rainey 1991, 7)

We scholars and teachers cannot pretend to be innocent of this process; to take but one example, would so many modernist texts today take the specific material form” of sleek, affordable paperback editions in series like Penguin Modern Classics or Oxford World’s Classics absent the commercial imperatives produced by their being assigned to hundreds of thousands of university students each year? And would those students be as likely to choose courses in modernist literature if we had not enthusiastically transformed the intellectual prestige of difficulty, the aura of formal radicalism, and the nimbus of historical crisis that surrounds our chosen era into as much cultural capital as we could?

It is this long process of arrogating cultural capital to which Mao rather shyly gestures when he speaks of a repackaging of an honorific term as a descriptive one.” It is a process that might also help to explain just why the modernist canon should have expanded to the point that even Mao concedes that the concept itself is at risk of becoming distended beyond use: it is precisely because of its prestige that diversifying the modernist canon takes on the utmost ethical urgency. The n’est plus ultra of that project arrived in the form of Susan Stanford Friedman’s 2015 book, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time, which argues that

[M]odernity need no longer reside solely in a specific set of institutional, ideological, or aesthetic characteristics emergent in the post-Renaissance West, radiating globally along the pathways of empire and postcoloniality, and appearing as pale copies of Western genius. Instead, a particularized modernity located in space and time could potentially emerge wherever and whenever the winds of radical disruption blew, the conditions of rapid change flared up, or the reflexive consciousness of newness spread—whether these were eagerly sought or resisted, whether imposed from without or developed within. (Friedman 2015, 34)

Uncharitable as it might be to the intricacies of Friedman’s argument, I find such a staggering proposal for disciplinary imperialism more reflective of the faux-cosmopolitan aspirations of the American professional and managerial stratum, the reproduction of which is now the overarching mission of the more elite” American institutions of higher education.

What would be the benefit, I am moved to ask, of agglomerating the study of, say, Tang Dynasty poetry, to modernist studies when there are disciplines (more diversely staffed ones, to boot) where such scholarship is already at home–if it not ultimately to distribute cultural capital more equitably? Bruce Robbins described Planetary Modernisms–and this was not meant as a compliment—as a grand gesture of western self-divestment,” but how much genuine divestment can be entailed in a move that suddenly brings times and places distributed across thousands of years and most of the surface of the planet within the purview of a subfield that coalesced around a half a century’s worth of Euro-American elite culture (Robbins 2016, 746)? I think there are humbler and more local gestures of self-divestment from which more global divestments might authentically follow, and the first of these might be for modernist studies to dissolve itself into a genuinely multi-lingual, genuinely transnational, twentieth-century studies. Against the seemingly total (but in reality limited) construct we call modernism,” to quote Andrew Goldstone, we can counterpose the many aggregates of cultural producers, artifacts, and audiences that are significant in themselves: genres, institutions, organizations, social movements, social groups, routes of circulation, regimes of reading, subcultures, cultural fields” (Goldstone 2019, 24).


Bishop, Edward. 2002. Review of Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture″.” Modern Philology 99 (3): 485–89.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. 2015. Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time. Modernist Latitudes. New York: Columbia University Press.
Goldstone, Andrew. 2019. Modernist Studies Without Modernism.” OSF.
Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Theories of Representation and Difference. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mao, Douglas, ed. 2021. The New Modernist Studies. Twenty-First-Century Critical Revisions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108765428.
Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. 2008. The New Modernist Studies.” PMLA 123 (3): 737–48. https://doi.org/10.1632/pmla.2008.123.3.737.
North, Michael. 2021. History’s Prehistory: Modernist Studies Before the New.” In The New Modernist Studies, edited by Douglas Mao, 25–40. Twenty-First-Century Critical Revisions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108765428.
Rainey, Lawrence S. 1991. Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1998. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. Henry McBride Series in Modernism and Modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Robbins, Bruce. 2016. Review of Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time″.” Interventions 18 (5): 746–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2016.1173959.