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Modernity @ Zero Hour: The Question of the Universal and the Origins of the Global Order

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Organizer: Barrett Watten

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This seminar will address the relationship between literary modernism (traditionally seen as having its end date at 1945, but expanded to include work in genres not usually associated with high modernism) with the Zero Hour of the end of World War II (seen as a crisis of modernity that decisively set in place processes of globalization). Seminar participants will read works of modernism, from American, European, and non-Eurocentric sources, that imagine and constitute while they challenge and critique “the universal” as an entailment of modernist forms (which are often seen as characterized by forms of parataxis and the foregrounding of particularity that suspend any notion of the universal). In the process of critiquing modernist particularity, we will also interrogate the vertical, idealist, and even authoritarian aspects of mid-century modernism and their entailments for the post-1945 order. High modernist authors could include Eliot, Woolf, Williams, Pound, Breton, Stein, Beckett, and so on in the Eurocentric tradition, but these figures may be placed next to lesser-known and nonliterary figures, movements, genres, and works. We would then try to connect the aesthetic “universalist” aspect of these authors and works with political claims for universal ethical and aesthetic values, in historical frameworks that range from the Nuremberg Trials, on the one hand, to the rise of abstraction as a universalist aesthetic, on the other. Finally, we will move from the Eurocentric constructions of universals to query their possibility in “alternative modernities,” represented at 1945 by Russia, China, and India as non-Western states and cultures, along with the decolonizing world, as anticipating non-Eurocentric frameworks for the emergent global order that must be taken into account in any notion of the "universal." The seminar will expand the implications of modernism for global and transnational pedagogy; should interest students of modernist, transnational, and postcolonial literature; and will engage theoretical concerns of Critical Theory and the gendering of modernity whenever possible.   

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