Remarks to the Comparative Modernisms Workshop at Northwestern

Fictions of Autonomy, events

Yesterday I had a great discussion with the Comparative Modernisms Workshop at Northwestern about my book, Fictions of Autonomy. I’m grateful to Harris Feinsod and Rebecca Johnson for the invitation and for facilitating such a lively event. I was particularly pleased to have had undergraduates from the lit-theory interest group (with excellent, searching questions) as well as grads and faculty at the discussion. Everyone who read my book had generous-spirited, thoughtful things to say. May my book find more such readers.

After the jump, a lightly edited version of my introductory remarks, plus a little esprit de l’escalier.

I wrote Fictions of Autonomy in order to grapple with one of the basic questions of literary scholarship: how can we analyze literature in terms that both do justice to its specifically literary complexities, especially at the level of form, and that account for literary history as part of history? More simply: how do we contextualize adequately?

I came to pose the question this way because I had an intensive training in what is called “close reading” or “analyzing the text itself.” That’s why I was so concerned about form. What I realized, above all by reading Bourdieu, is that this training was itself one of the institutional legacies of modernism. Bourdieu calls it “doxa”: the premise built into the rules of the field. This premise, like its supporting institutions, has a history—a nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. Thus the theoretical or methodological question of how to do form and context adequately led, for me, to the study of modernism.

I claim that the problem of autonomy is modernism’s central preoccupation, from the early modernism of the late 19th century to the late modernism of the past few decades. This preoccupation manifests itself as a great variety of fictions of autonomy, or representations of a relative independence for literature. That independence must be staked out precisely by grasping and modifying literature’s worldly relations to a variety of contexts. Thus, in modernism, autonomy is a mode of relating literature to its social circumstances. It is a family of practices that claim partial autonomy for the literary field by representing that field’s dependencies on other fields.

With this argument, I am trying to bypass the exhausted theoretical debate about autonomy by historicizing autonomy itself. I wanted alternatives to the most prominent ways of handling autonomy in the last few decades’ work on modernism:

(1) “exposing” autonomy as an ideological cover-up for modernism’s ties to fascism, ethnocentrism, and political reaction; or (2) identifying some aesthetic dimension of a modernist-period text as simultaneously aesthetically innovative and deeply engaged with some dimension of social modernity. Then it can turn out, usually, that modernist aesthetics has a nice left-liberal politics after all.

Actually, I think both approaches capture some of the truth, but they underestimate the difficulty of explaining the relation between literary or aesthetic strategies and other kinds of social or political developments. And of course the third possibility of affirming the inherent autonomy of the artwork on its own terms is even less empirically adequate.

Instead, we should take modernists’ claims to aesthetic, formal, or literary independence and distinction at face value. But we should see those commitments as socially specific, as tactics for developing literary institutions that self-consciously work on the worlds writers and their writings are part of. I think that in order to understand the causes and effects of those literary commitments, we need not the intrepretive bravura of political allegorization or cultural critique but a full-fledged sociology of literature.

So I hope to convince readers of the book who work on modernism that they need to account for autonomy as a central part of modernism—in fact, I think autonomy is often a buried crux of modernist-studies debates, as I try to show about the cosmopolitanism debate in chapter 3. And I try to demonstrate how to take autonomy into account in a literary-historical analysis.

But the methodological point the book as a whole makes is that some of the deepest intrinsic questions about literature, including questions about literary form and style, are really questions about the social life of literary activity. Thus, the work of doing an adequate historical analysis of literature will ultimately require the study of institutions, patterns of collective behavior, and above all the distribution of symbolic, cultural, and economic power. In other words, sociology. Now the interpretive discussion in my book isn’t sociology (or, if it is, it’s a much more literary kind of sociology than I necessarily favor), but it tries to lay the groundwork for future study. In particular the micro-analyses I make need to be twinned with the kind of social-structural analysis Bourdieu himself does. What I’ve tried to show is that the demand for that sociological analysis of structure is internal to even the modernist works that most stridently lay claim to autonomy. As Bourdieu says, in seeking autonomy certain members of the literary field have a tendency to expose the rules of the game that they nonetheless want also to play.

And one last point. In arguing about literary autonomy we are typically also arguing about the autonomy of the discipline of literary scholarship. But as with literature, so with scholarship: there are only some kinds of autonomy worth wanting.

The only kinds of autonomy worth wanting are those that are made by people’s efforts and secured in institutions which create durable forms of social relations in which some self-governance is possible. Debates about what literary studies should specialize in or how we should study literature are empty unless they simultaneously address the realities of the limited and diminishing institutional autonomy of scholars today. The MLA found in 2008—before the financial crisis and the latest round of austerity—that 60% of university instructors in English are not on the tenure track. According to the AAUP, the national proportion of non-tenure-track university teachers is more than 70%. The AAUP calls this a “failure of the social contract.” Scholars working contingently are often deprived of the most basic necessities, let alone the resources and the dignity of intellectual freedom—and with the complicity, however unwilling, of ladder faculty members like myself.

It is a fantasy to imagine that this situation can be addressed at the level of literary or social theory alone. On the other hand, theory is just as necessary to grasping our own situation objectively as it is to understanding literary history. It would be no bad thing if my argument for understanding literature’s worldly effects through its institutional stance helped discourage fatuous defenses in the abstract of the intrinsic political-ethical value of the literary or the “humanities.” What I would rather encourage are the practices of solidarity and collective action that would reclaim relative autonomy in the present social world for all scholars and teachers. In any case, if we are committed to the production of knowledge in an autonomous discipline of literary scholarship, we must make a commitment to undoing the highly exploitative institutional configuration literary scholarship now inhabits.

Esprit de l’escalier

And now, a couple of things I wished I’d articulated in the discussion afterwards.

A graduate student rightly asked me who the “we” featured in the above remarks was. To the “we” of scholars of modernism, pre- and post-degree, I aim my arguments about the centrality of autonomy in modernism and the necessity of accounting for position-takings for (various kinds of) autonomy in analyses of literature. To the “we” of scholars of literature—and I don’t just mean in English departments—I address my methodological demand for more empirically robust accounts of literary activity as social activity. To this broad disciplinary group I make my brief for sociological and sociologically-informed approaches. And to this same “we” I speak about the crisis of the profession and the exploitation of adjunct teaching labor. But the kind of action this crisis demands of individual scholars certainly depends on their own location in the academic field and the kinds of power they can exercise. This little post-postscript is not the place to make prescriptions. Suffice to say that the agency to address this is not the exclusive possession of administrators and senior scholars, thanks be to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

On another front in the autonomy-and-the-university debate: One of the running themes of the Workshop discussion was the question of comparison, which is important to me but never taken up explicitly in the book. In fact the last “modernist” in my account was a Comp Lit department chair (Paul de Man), and perhaps the most compact (if not the most compelling) way to specify my selection of texts would be to describe it as an American Comp Lit canon circa 1990.1 I think what I should have said is: My implicit claim about the methodology of comparison is that good comparisons make claims about fields and positions, not just about individual writers or texts. When you do that, you are either reconstructing a field in which two writers’ affinities become intelligible as related or opposed position-takings, or you are making a claim about law-like patterns in cultural fields more broadly. The less abstract way to say this is just to say that the kind of comparison I am most interested in (1) gives a historical account of the connection between the comparanda through mediators like organizational affiliation, critical reception, and publication venues; and (2) pays particular attention to exercises of symbolic power, either by the subjects of comparison or by the agents that make the comparison possible. Djuna Barnes and Joyce are comparable, for example, not simply by elective affinity but because they made themselves homologous writers on the Paris scene of English-language literature—and then they were made so once more, for the postwar, by American literary critics.2

I think that more attention to these questions of mediation and power would help research in comparative and “global” modernisms, for example, to draw some finer distinctions among twentieth-century literary fields than is possible by attending to either modernity or literary form on their own. One would discover some very striking and different fictions of autonomy on the way too.

That was a tall escalier, but I wanted to pay some tribute to the participants in a most stimulating discussion. My thanks, Northwestern Comparative Modernisms Workshop!

[Edit 3/18/13: fixed a couple of typos.]


  1. I said off-handedly at one point that in a way Adorno and de Man are “American” writers for this reason, but I regret the remark. On the contrary, my argument in the book is that both writers imagined autonomy in ways definitively shaped by their national cultural fields of origin (Adorno’s interwar Germany, de Man’s wartime Belgium). One comparative distinction I want to think more about is the difference between what happens when a writer expresses a habitus in an international field (Barnes in Paris, Eliot in London) and the “translation” of a person from one cultural field to another. Difficult problems of boundaries and hierarchies in both cases.
  2. Roland Greene, thinking about poetry in the Americas, has provided some other useful keywords for doing this: obversal and divagation.