[This is a response to Timothy Brennan’s keynote presentation, “The Problem of Unevenness: Peripheral Aesthetics and Imperial Form,” presented at the “Negative Cosmopolitanisms: Abjection, Power, and Biopolitics” conference, Edmonton, Alberta, October 2012.]

“Peripheral Modernism. A Response to Tim Brennan”

Tim Brennan provides us with a provocative, forthright, and challenging presentation. Indeed, though one hesitates to call it “ironic,” given the rather critical things that Brennan himself has to say about irony (which he claims “is based on the subject setting itself up as supreme”), it is notable that a paper that opens by excoriating a “combat mode” of theory is itself strikingly combative. Brennan takes shots at entire swathes of the contemporary Humanities: at the “graduate students and young professors” who mistake theory for combat, but also at those who prefer a “radical indecisionism” that is either complementary to or indistinguishable from (or perhaps merely “athwart”) the pseudo-radicalism of their colleagues. He goes on to argue that “a kind of neo-Socratic position […] is everywhere around us today in the academy,” a stance that is in fact not a stance but is rather designed only to “establish [the speaker’s] superiority over the supposedly rough, impetuous, and naïve adherents to actual positions.”

Everywhere Brennan sees what he terms “louche” theorizing: “an intentionally cloudy, squint-eyed perspective […] secretive writing, words intended for initiates and hidden from the vulgar public.” No names are provided, but apparently Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory is a hotbed for this stuff: a mere “simulacrum of revolution”; “a romance with death”; Humanists who are “against humans”; “conservatives of modernist literary cast.” It’s worth unpacking this last very condensed series of epithets: it’s not enough to say that they (we?) are (secretly, unbeknownst even to ourselves) conservatives; we are also unoriginally “cast” from a single mold whose deformity can be traced back to the pernicious influence of both modernism and literature. By contrast, then, Brennan offers us idiosyncrasy and originality (“it has not generally been recognized […] it has gone completely unremarked”) that is saved from quirkiness or the pernicious conformity of mere novelty by its steadfast refusal of both modernism and the literary “double-entendre.” Brennan calls on distinguished forbears–the Marxist intellectuals of the interwar period, above all–in order to break free from the “irony” that, he alleges, “inhibit[s] our ability to make sense of the imperialist common sense of the present.” He proposes instead an anti-imperialist common sense that has no truck with the “effeteness of literary modernism.” In brief, I don’t think that an “anti-imperialist” common sense is much improvement on an imperialist one; and I’m suspicious of all homilies, and suggest that you should be, too. But back to Brennan’s project: naturally enough, cosmopolitanism is out (being merely the “literary ethos” appropriate to “the imperial aspects of globalization”). Again, however, it is surely ironic that he marshals in support of this anti-cosmopolitan, anti-literary, anti-elitism a “who’s who” of third-world literary intellectuals, practically all of whom are male, middle-class, and ethnically privileged, from Chinua Achebe to César Vallejo, Alejo Carpentier to Mo Yan.

Read more… (pdf file)

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