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By Douglas Mao, Rebecca L. Walkowitz

Modernism is sizzling back. on the sunrise of the twenty-first century, poets and designers, designers and critics, lecturers and artists are rediscovering the virtues of the former century’s such a lot shiny cultural constellation. but this frequent embody increases questions about modernism’s relation to its personal good fortune. Modernism’s “badness”—its emphasis on outrageous habit, its elevation of negativity, its refusal to be condoned—seems necessary to its energy. yet as soon as modernism is permitted as “good” or worthy (as loads of modernist artwork now is), its prestige as a subversive aesthetic intervention turns out undermined. The participants to undesirable Modernisms tease out the contradictions in modernism’s dedication to badness.

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117 One of the lessons of that essay and its sequel, “Lyric and Modernity,” was that once a particular tendency is established as constitutive of a literary-historical entity (say, modernism, or postcolonial literature), not only will exceptions immediately spring to mind, but the tendency in question will suddenly be found at work in one form or another throughout literary history. Isn’t the dynamic laid out above as constitutive of modernism a feature of literary language more generally (Herrick’s “careless shoestring,” for example, reproducing the logic of the fragment, of the humble thing as the little piece of the Real)?

This historical shift, the movement from the mathematically to the dynamically sublime, runs from the ability to postulate the infinite without being able adequately to present it to a kind of shock at the confrontation with brute materiality, from the radical inaccessibility of the supersensible Idea to the radical inaccessibility of the Ding an sich, from symbolism to defamiliarization, from romanticism to Hulme’s “classicism” or modernism. Doubtless the dynamically sublime undergoes a certain domestication, however, as it makes its way into modernism: from “shapeless mountain masses piled on one another in wild disarray, with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy raging sea”74 to, say, a red wheelbarrow.

When we try to be rigorous about defining them as positive entities, modernism and African literature tend (like capital and labor or the First and Third Worlds) to evaporate before our very eyes. But what the preceding pages have attempted is not a description of two positive entities but the exploration of a negative one, the rift that separates them. What we have outlined, in other words, is a relationship, one that exists not only between modernism and African literature but within modernism (between, say, Proust and Dos Passos), within African literature (say, Mia Couto and Sembe`ne Ousmane), and within individual national literatures (Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan, or Dos Passos and Mike Gold).

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