At Harvard This Week


I’ll be in Cambridge (in the Dave Barry sense of the word) on Wednesday, March 4, to give a talk to the British Studies Colloquium of the Harvard English department. Here’s my abstract:

The Modernist Period Concept: Threat or Menace?

The early twentieth century is the modernist period. Or so we say. Does this idea, codified in the institutions of modernist studies, limit our understanding of literary history? In this talk, I use a study of thousands of MLA Bibliography entries to argue that the modernist period concept is regulated, in practice, by an all-too-familiar canon of authors (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound), in spite of efforts to expand modernism culturally, geographically, and historically. These names stand for the equation of formal-aesthetic innovation, as it was practiced in Euro-American avant-garde scenes, with the literary culture of modernity. The menace of the modernist period concept is that this equation is tenacious but wrong. It conflates the whole of the literary field with its most consecrated part, precluding the study of the structural transformation of literary production and reception in the first half of the century. That transformation gives rise, not to a legible Zeitgeist, but to a system of hierarchically organized genres with non-synchronous histories. By way of speculative conclusion, I briefly compare histories of several popular fiction genres and suggest that the study of literary classification systems is a necessary complement to the study of that single high-literary genre we call “modernism.”

The talk is at 5:15 p.m. in Barker 114.

It has come to my attention that while I am quantifying literary studies in Boston, Franco Moretti will be giving the Goldstone lecture at NYU. If you are racing to my talk and tell your phone, “Take me to the Goldstone lecture, double-quick!” check that you are not being directed to New York City.