Modernism In/And The Contemporary

I’m excited to announce a panel for MSA 17, “Modernism In/And the Contemporary.”

In the context of modernism, modernity, and modernist studies, “revolution” is commonly associated with change, upheaval, and rupture. This panel considers “revolution,” in another sense: return, circularity, cyclical recurrence. As David James and Urmila Seshagiri note in their eponymous “Metamodernism,” contemporary fiction recycles and remixes modernism with great implications for modernist studies. This panel considers the ways that modernism—as a concept, a historically defined period, a series of aesthetic and political commitments—is reshaped by, in, and for the contemporary. Our panel considers the usefulness of modernism as a concept for contemporary scholarship, the archival and methodological investments of modernism and media studies, and modernism’s situation within a contemporary field of cultural production.

Aaron Jaffe’s presentation poses such a challenge, situating a discussion of media archaeology and modernist archival practices in the context of “Experimental Paleofuturism.” Jaffe discuss the concepts of experience and experiment in the work of Siegfried Zielinski, the German media theorist, and his past master Vilém Flusser, the Czech-Brazilian philosopher. The Flusser archive was entrusted to Zielinski following Flusser’s death, serving as a repository of Flusser’s lifework – containing all his published and unpublished works – and as a portable laboratory of cultural techniques. For Flusser, Zielinski writes, “technical media had been a pile, a treasure of possibilities (or perhaps better: potentialities), which permanently had to be explored, every day and everyday new.” Zielinski’s project to actualize the latent potentialities of dead media, which he terms variantology, “the imaginary sum of all possible genealogies of media phenomena.”

Modernism is put to many uses in contemporary literature—as a concept, as a period, and as a canon. Laura McGrath explores modernism as a vehicle of prestige and cultural distinction for contemporary writers. McGrath locates these issues in an examination of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Henry James-inspired Vogue photo-shoot to consider how modernism is activated for the strategic purposes of cultural distinction, reputation-building, and publicity. McGrath considers the ways in which a literary past is activated in the present, and how these contemporary strategies rely upon high-cultural modernist aesthetics (and associations) in order to define the 21st century novel in relationship to its literary past.

Our third panelist, David James, will act as a discussant, synthesizing the arguments presented by Jaffe and McGrath.

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