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KADLEC, David. " Anarchism, pragmatism, and the politics of modernism 1912-1935 "
Article published on 6 June 2004
last modification on 10 October 2005
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Ph. D. University of Chicago, Dept. of English Language and Literature, August 1994. iv-202 p.

DAI 1995 55(8): 2384-A


The historical importance of anarchism and pragmatism to modern literary aesthetics encourages us to reconsider currently circulating versions of the politics of modernism; and a sustained analysis of modernism’s engagement with these political and philosophical movements enhances our understanding of contemporary critical practices. Sources for modernist aesthetics in this study range from anarchist perspectives on such early twentieth-century social movements as British syndicalism, woman suffrage, and economic ’underconsumptionism,’ to American pragmatist critiques of ’Americanization’ programs and eugenics. Through the topical lenses of anarchism and pragmatism, these sociohistorical movements become sources for a modernist concern with issues of essence and accident in language.

Although this conceptual concern is usually rendered as an abstract aesthetic one, I show that, for writers like Ezra Pound, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, it derives much of its shape and force from specific historical situations, many of which have surprisingly intricate political roots. If an anarchistic emphasis on immanence in individual or in relational identities served in Britain to bolster versions of an anti-rationalist poetics of presence, a related pragmatist emphasis on the power of direct, unmediated experience over ideas or theory enabled American poets to adapt such modernist aesthetics to the development of an American poetic identity.

Anarchist and pragmatist sources for modernist aesthetics demonstrate the ill-suitedness to the modern period of many of the anachronistic political categories that contemporary critics invoke in viewing early modernism as torn between protofascistic and socialistic predispositions. These sources ask us to rethink our most basic assumptions regarding the politics of such characteristically modernist and postmodernist aesthetics as semiotic presence and indeterminacy.

Apart from recovering social and intellectual contexts which enrich current versions of the politics of modernism, this study addresses critical practices at large by approaching contemporary treatments of the literature and history of the modern period through conceptual premises that derive from the study of modernism itself. Identifying anarchism and pragmatism as historical sources for modernist epistemic and semiotic premises, Anarchism, Pragmatism, and the Politics of Modernism traces the tension between New Historicist and more explicitly theorized critical methodologies to the modernist preference for art that embodies experience over art that restages it through systems of representation. Modernism itself thus becomes a fertile historical ground for understanding assumptions basic to current critical approaches to modern literature.

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