Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)


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Michael Marder. Rita Felski. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Patrick Williams.

Books in the Modernist Latitudes series - Wheelers Books

A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory. Michael Payne. Postcolonial Life-Writing. Bart Moore-Gilbert. Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History. Darrin M. Ellen Rooney. Amelia Jones. Sceptical History. Cosmopolitanism and Translation. Esperanca Bielsa. Decolonizing Dialectics. George Ciccariello-Maher. Poets Beyond the Barricade. Dale M. American Literary Criticism Since the s. Vincent B. Sonic Agency. Brandon LaBelle. Locating Postcolonial Narrative Genres.

Walter Goebel. Mobile Narratives. Eleftheria Arapoglou. A Companion to Comparative Literature. Ali Behdad. A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism. Eric Hayot. Futures of Comparative Literature. Ursula K Heise. Imagination and the Contemporary Novel. John J. Human Rights, Inc. Joseph R. Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers. Lori J. Literature in Translation. Carol Maier. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. Iain Chambers. Ranjan Ghosh. Black Women, Writing and Identity. Carole Boyce-Davies. Modernism: The Basics. Laura Winkiel. Dr James Donald.

The Postcolonial Unconscious. Neil Lazarus. Re-Engendering Translation. Christopher Larkosh. Renato Rosaldo. Transgression as a Mode of Resistance. Christina R. Utopia as Method. Rerouting the Postcolonial. Janet Wilson. The Politics of Culture. Richard Calichman. The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel.

Ato Quayson. Cultural Studies. Lawrence Grossberg. Violence, Culture And Censure. Professor Colin Sumner. The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Michael D'Arcy. Diaspora and Visual Culture. Nicholas Mirzoeff. Revolutionary Hope. Nathan J. Cynthia Sugars. Why the Humanities Matter. Frederick Luis Aldama. The Common Cause.

Leela Gandhi. Locating Gender in Modernism. Geetha Ramanathan. Worlds Within. Vilashini Cooppan.

Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: Is Modern Architecture Disastrous?

Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature. Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg. Sociology Through the Projector. Bulent Diken. Chimeras of Form. Aarthi Vadde. Prose of the World. Saikat Majumdar. Sean Meighoo. Planetary Modernisms.

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Susan Stanford Friedman. Cultural Studies The Aesthetics and Politics of Global Hunger. Anastasia Ulanowicz. Propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War, responding to the bombing of Asturias. Antifascist propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War. Common images of academia often portray the lonely scholar reading under a single light bulb and writing in quiet isolation, waiting for the eureka moment. The years of writing this second book have taught me quite a different lesson about the communal process of scholarly work.

This book has been made possible by the published work and personal guidance of many scholars and friends, too numerous to list here. I owe a debt of gratitude to the anonymous readers for Columbia University Press whose insightful comments improved the book immeasurably. I thank copy editor Michael Haskell whose lithe hand rescued me from many an infelicity of expression and a few downright errors.

Thanks also to Philip Leventhal at Columbia for shepherding the book expertly through the publication process and for his ongoing interest in modernist studies. His was the spark that set off our book series, Modernist Latitudes—a venture I have the good fortune to share with my coeditor extraordinaire, Paul Saint-Amour. We know who really runs the department! Librarians at the Library of Congress, the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, McFarlin Library, the University of Tulsa, the University of Delaware Library Special Collections, and the British Library where I thank the person in special collections who took pity on me and allowed me to request many more than my daily manuscript allotment!

I am grateful to these publications for permission to reprint. In his first novel, Untouchable , the celebrated Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand follows a day in the life of an untouchable boy named Bakha, whose travails in a small village raise complex questions about the ethical and political dimensions of modernity in late-colonial India. When Gandhi tells a story about a sweeper he has known, Bakha seems almost to enter the center of political life, identifying with that sweeper and taking part in his influence on such a powerful man.

If there are any Untouchables here, he heard the Mahatma say, they should realize that they are cleaning Hindu society. He felt like shouting to say that he, an Untouchable, was there, but he did not know what the Mahatma meant by cleaning Hindu society. He gave ear to the words. In order to emancipate themselves they have to purify themselves. But, now the Mahatma is blaming us, Bakha felt.

That is not fair! In sorting through this conflict, he employs the language of ethics that is not fair! Gandhi is wrong to shut India off from the world and from the machine age, he argues. When the sweepers change their profession, they will no longer remain Untouchables.

And they can do that soon, for the first thing we will do when we accept the machine, will be to introduce the machine which clears dung without anyone having to handle it—the flush system. Then the sweepers can be free from the stigma of untouchability and assume the dignity of status that is their right as useful members of a casteless and classless society.

For the poet, engaging with modernity carries with it potential access to a rational system of political rights, obviating the need for the broad discussion of virtue and personal responsibility proposed by Gandhi and generating a more recognizably political version of justice. For his part, Bakha, who has overheard this speech in the crowd, wonders at the miracle of the machine that can clear away dung and at the potential to improve his status without the ethical stigma of blame.

He is attracted both to the strange power of the Mahatma, who has been willing to stand side by side with the untouchables, and by the promise of the flush toilet, which might mean political liberation from the age-old enslavement of sweeping. At the same time, this day-in-the-life narrative is also infused with the temporal twists and uneven development of economic and political modernization. His ethical perspective has intersected the most pressing matters of modernity and political justice for India even as, at the end of the narrative, he turns toward his family, his village, and the day-to-day challenge of his own untouchable status.

In this way, Untouchable brings to the fore the intertwined problems of untouchability and modernity while demonstrating the role of narrative in linking ethics and politics. What had he done to deserve such treatment? Bakha asks himself, in outrage, pointing out his ethical obligation: He loved the child.

From this moment on, untouchability in this novel stands for not only ethical responsibility and its primordial obligations but also for its motivating position in the narrative of a modern Indian life. We might say that the untouchable boy represents the very principle of ethical obligation to an other—or, as Simon Critchley puts it reading Derrida , the infinite responsibility of unconditional hospitality —and marks this obligation as a structuring principle of narrative, both fictional and national-historical.

It encouraged Indians to throw off their colonial status by refusing to play their assigned role as consumers of British goods and by turning to previous modes of production and technologies, such as the traditional spinning wheel, that would help them become independent of British commodity capitalism and its commercial technology. At the same time, the legacy of Swadeshi, as scholars from Sumit Sarkar to Dipesh Chakrabarty have made clear, is not wholly anti-modern.

In this way, Untouchable also brings to the fore one of the central arguments of this book: that narrative can play a crucial role in bridging the gap between ethics and politics, connecting ethical attitudes and responsibilities—ideas about what we ought to be and do—to active creation of political relationships and just conduct—what is right and possible within the power structures and discourses of our social life and institutions. As Derek Attridge puts it. Our political being-in-common and the structures of justice to which it gives rise develop out of our understanding of our responsibilities and obligations to ourselves and others within both the moral and social realms, and they emerge in the ways that we account for ourselves to others in narration.

Hannah Arendt makes clear that this act of narration, which goes on between and among people, constitutes a web of human relations in which political action takes place. Rather, I recognize, along with Gayatri Spivak, that in order to have such power, the event of narration, which takes place as an indeterminate sharing between writers and readers, would need a public arena and an audience predisposed to attend to it.


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Modernism, I will claim, stands for a dynamic set of relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements with modernity rather than a static canon of works, a given set of formal devices, or a specific range of beliefs. As Susan Stanford Friedman has argued, it escapes nominal definition, even as a plurality, and exceeds our efforts to describe it through its difference from what came before or after. Nor can we pretend that such a list of preoccupations stands in for the practices, relationships, or problematics that motivate the great variety of modernisms as they emerge worldwide.

Rather, I would argue, modernist narrative might best be seen as a constellation of rhetorical actions, attitudes, or aesthetic occasions, motivated by the particular and varied situations of economic, social, and cultural modernity worldwide and shaped by the ethical and political demands of those situations. Further, the aesthetic dimensions of modernist narrative enlist the play of imagination in creating possible worlds that emerge from, correct, revise, and re-create these social and political situations and do so through their vigorous and persistent attempts to multiply and disturb modes of representation.

To be sure, when we move beyond the European centers that are the source for most common Euro-American definitions of modernism, we will find a wider range of formal preoccupations as well as a broader set of attitudes toward modernity than those we are used to recognizing. Many of the texts I will take up in this book, for example, test the boundaries between reportage and fiction or between memoir and bildungsroman as a means of rewriting the experience of reality under the pressure of economic and social modernization.

They often foreground folkways and the marks of the vernacular as part of their encounter with the public discourses of modernity, and they experiment with narrative modes like skaz or the sketch as a means of unsettling the linear temporalities and narrative expectations of representative prose fiction.

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They sometimes begin from an intimate, embodied sensibility, which may exist in contact and concert with cosmopolitan attitudes toward ethics and justice, thus creating a fiction both intimate and global. In other words, in ways often more dramatic than in the canonical modernisms of metropolitan Europe and the United States, the texts I will explore over the course of this book destabilize the division between partisanship and aesthetics—indeed, often challenging the distinction between these two terms, using narrative experimentation as a force of social activity and grounding their formal resistance to consensus-based realism in their oppositional political engagement.

In this way, as I will argue, reading modernism transnationally shifts our perspective on the forms and commitments of modernism, asking us to recognize the rhetorical action its forms undertake and the continuum of political engagement that undergirds its worldwide emergence. In particular, this book will look to explicitly political writing in several global locations in an effort to challenge the distinction usually drawn between politically engaged writing and self-consciously aesthetic or experimental modernism; to resist the segregation of so-called thirties or overtly political writing from what was once called high modernism; and to emphasize situated political commitment as a narrative concern central to the many varieties of transnational modernism.

Scholars of postcolonialism have described how the links between writings in different parts of the Empire, and at different times in the colonized or ex-colonized world bring into play the problematics of empire in varied locations. We have long taught ourselves to see the formal lines of influence that tie modernist texts to one another, linking Joyce or Proust to Woolf and more recently Ocampo, much as the gossamer webs link characters across London in Mrs.

Jahan Ramazani has reminded us that modernist writers rarely fit neatly into national paradigms, and he argues for an alternate literary history in which transnational creolization, hybridization, and interculturation become almost as basic to our understanding of modernism as they are of the postcolonial.

Frederic Jameson argues that modernism must be seen as a project that reemerges over and over again with the various national situations as a specific and unique national-literary task or imperative, whose cross cultural kinship with its neighbors is not always evident. Transnationalism, in my use of the term, becomes not just an adjective describing a particular cosmopolitan attitude among a specific set of texts or authors though it is that, too —it describes a web of social and textual interrelationships linking modernisms worldwide as well as an optic through which to see these links.

In this sense he participates in the spaces of exchange and participation wherever processes of hybridization occur. Even when resolutely local in its concerns or national in its literary ambitions, a narrative may also illuminate and engage the many nodes of interconnection, both literary and political, that interlink modernisms worldwide. I also employ the term transnational as a critical optic that shares the oppositional valence of the prefix trans- in such words as transgress and transform.

Jessica Berman

In addition to simply meaning across, over, and beyond, the prefix trans- can imply on the other side of, representing not only a crossing of boundaries but also a challenge to the normative dimension of the original entity or space. Most prominently, the prefix has this valence in contemporary transgender and transsexual theory, where, as scholars like Judith Halberstam and Susan Stryker employ it, trans- has come to stand not only for gender or sexual identities that have crossed from one side of a binary field to the other but also for anything that disrupts, denaturalizes, rearticulates and makes visible the links we assume to exist between a sexual body and the social roles it is expected to play.

Transgender studies thus engages with the ethical and moral dimensions of the fact that people experience and express their gender in fundamentally different ways and concerns itself with combating the political injustices and violence that often attend the perception of gender nonnormativity.

By examining the forms, attitudes, and commitments of a variety of transnational modernist narratives, whether memoir, reportage, fiction, or essay, I hope to discover the extraordinary engagement with matters of public justice that infuses global literary modernism and the nodes of contact and interconnection that generate its commitments. Contemporary critics rarely mention ethics and politics in the same breath. Levinas is notoriously reticent on matters of politics while contemporary democratic theorists from John Rawls to Amartya Sen avoid bringing ethics into the conversations about modern, liberal notions of justice.

Philosophers have made many attempts since Aristotle to calibrate the relationship between ethics and politics and the status of justice between them, which often hinges on epistemology and the matter of experience in the world. Hume, for example, begins by arguing for a clear distinction between morality, which arises from passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts and comes to us by way of our impressions or sentiments, and matters of material fact that can be discovered by the understanding or experienced directly.

However, Hume objects to accounts that attempt to derive the matter of ought, or ethics, from propositions about matters of fact 3. Since it is governed by the principle of utility rather than some innate moral quality, justice depends on the particular state and condition, in which men are placed, with its merit being its usefulness to the public.

Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes) Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)
Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes) Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)
Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes) Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)
Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes) Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)
Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes) Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)
Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes) Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (Modernist Latitudes)

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