Discoverable Keywords of the New Modernist Studies

September 7, 2016

Written by guest blogger, James Gifford

Modernism: Keywords is one of those books that calls out for reviewers. I should know. I’ve been called out to review it three times… But part of what makes this a productive project is that I could think of three different pathways into (and out of) the book without retracing my steps. While I’d like readers to come to the review, I’d rather they go find the book itself. Instead of answering the questions the book poses itself, Cuddy-Keane, Hammond, and Peat ask the reader “What are you going to make from this?” It’s a question every reviewer wants.

Freud asked Marie Bonaparte in confusion “Was will das Weib?”, or so Ernest Jones tells us. A better question for a blog is “What do reviewers want?” And it’s also vexed by the confusions of the reader’s desire muddled up with the object on which we fix attention. In other words, every reviewer wants something different. Happily here’s a book and a series (Keywords in Literature & Culture) that redefines itself to suit our protean wanting. It invites non-sequential reading and self-reflection in its scholarly Choose Your Own Adventure.

“Define”: The book’s richness comes from the difficulties of the two titular words. “Keywords” call to discoverability, and “Modernism” has been contested since it began (that is, if we’ve ever truly been “modern”). And for today’s readers in literary studies, the former calls to the ontologies of humanities computing while the latter lets us label the ever-new (and ever-nostalgic) cultural responses to plural modernities here, there, and everywhere. Despite the title’s concision, opening up “modernism” and “keywords” is no small task. Doing it in small pieces valuable to researchers and undergraduates alike is remarkable.

“Lineage”: Apart from books that pose the reviewers questions, we also love those that set up a family tree. Genealogies have dead branches and crazy uncles: did you know Uncle Bill now has a daughter younger than his grandsons? John is actually descended from Donne and Cowper too, but don’t get him started on it… Every reviewer loves the family gossip as one book leads to another or starts a feud. This project is no different. It moves forward from a specific set of scholarly traditions while also outlining the relations among each entry in the book: from the offspring to the kissing cousins.

“Update”: In this sense, Modernism: Keywords is also a major update that resolves feuds and brings two families together. The authors bring the critical paradigm of Raymond Williams’ 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society to today’s research methods and digital resources. It’s James Joyce meets JSTOR, really. The kind of expansive and lateral scope of Williams’ project is, now, a part of our everyday. The authors offer a way of reading those connections just as much as the individual nodes in the network of terms.

“Digital”: From “big data” to bibliographic databases, we encounter breadth with every search and review. Where once Williams pressed other scholars to find connections across a wider cultural terrain, it is now our inescapable burden to limit connectivity and to narrow search results. Googling “modernism keywords” offers about 466,000 results in only .56 seconds. This kind of scope makes us question what a book even is today – perhaps it is no more than a set of searchable vignettes accessed through Google Books in our browsers rather than flipping paper between our palms. Cuddy-Keane, Hammond, and Peat answer this technological query by writing the book in these vignettes, but they resist the pressure to skim by setting out a dense series of interconnections. These print “links” alter how each entry may be understood by refashioning its relations.

“Modernism” also went through a major update. The New Modernist Studies emerged in the late 1990s, and it may be fair to say Modernism made itself new again as way of challenging its progeny in the post-modern.

The pressure here was to take that elitist and even fascist set of works locked into a canon of literary descent and open it to wider temporal and geographical frames. It also meant a wider set of reading publics, an expanding set of genres, diversified politics, and a capacious sense of what that most vexed of terms “culture” could mean. What was the modernist middlebrow in Toronto? Where was the modernist lowbrow exported? Who made up those readerships? This new modernism is now reaching the point of needing its own renewal, and Cuddy-Keane, Hammond, and Peat provoke part of that here.

How then could readers organize a keyword search of a modernism made new? Modernism: Keywords  is the answer. The second problem is why this book calls out reviewers? Because Modernism: Keywords “defines a lineage and updates” how we think of “digital modernism.”  So, yes, please do read the review – better still, read all three. But then go read the book.

James Gifford’s review, “Melba Cuddy-Keane, Adam Hammond, and Alexandra Peat. Modernism: Keywords“ is available in the University of Toronto Quarterly  85.3, Summer 2016. Read it at or on Project MUSE.

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