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Peripheral Modernisms

ISSUE 9–10, fall 2020 - spring 2021
Issue Editors:
Vered K. Shemtov, Melih Levi

This article examines antigrammaticality in the work of the so-called first “native” modern Hebrew poet, Esther Raab, focusing in particular on how Raab deploys the constraints of Hebrew’s highly gendered grammar in her poems. I begin by considering the broad implications of grammatical gender for how we think and act in the world, while also taking into account specific, concrete examples of gender policing that Raab recalled from her own early childhood. I then offer a close reading of a single, untitled poem to demonstrate how, from her position at the intersection of multiple margins, as a native-born female poet in a literary milieu dominated by immigrants, most of them male, Raab effectively subverts both gender and grammar norms in the construction of a nonconforming gender identity.

The date in the article’s title hints at Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that in this month “the human character had changed,” a change that, according to Woolf, altered the forms of literary representation of subjective experience and marked the rise of twentieth-century modernist literature. Interestingly, in this month or in the month preceding it, the prominent Hebrew writer Y. H. Brenner published his Hebrew novella Nerves. I argue that in the Jewish Hebrew context December 1910 marked precisely the decline of the early Hebrew modernist turn, parallel to the establishment of a new literary center for Hebrew literature in Eretz Yisrael. I first shed light on the story’s complex treatment of the figure of “nerves” and argue that through this figure Brenner’s story articulates the irresolvable tension between two forms of life as two forms of representation. I then contextualize the tensions inherent to the historical and poetic figure of nerves within the wider discussion of the process of decline of Hebrew modernist poetics at the very moment in which the language performed its national “return” to its native soil.

This essay presents an initial foray into the rich field of modern Arabic poetry after the canonization phase of modernism in midcentury Beirut. Though by no means offering an exhaustive account, the chosen case studies are claimed to cover major orientations in forms of second-wave modernism that swept across poetic writing in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As Beirut became the prestigious metropolitan center for modernist poetics, shifts of sensibility are viewed in relation to its dominant modes and in terms of an altered imagining of the center-periphery duality. I follow two trajectories: a mode of exile, for which the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus is representative, and a mode of domestic development. For the latter, I look to the cultural fringes of the Arab world — the Gulf and the Maghrib — to analyze how the Beiruti paradigm moves into new territories of culture, society, and politics. Even within a monolingual transregional literature, I argue, setting a dialectic in motion with a centralized tradition generates in each reiteration unique patterns of continuity and change. Ideological faults are redressed and, by consciously forming fissures, Arab peripheries propose a reintegration of poetic modernity into a more historically grounded, inclusive, and synchronized project.

The December 1989 Revolution that overthrew the Communist regime brought Romanian literature back on the international literary market and dramatically changed the conditions for production and circulation. However, there was a lively circulation of foreign literature through translation into Romanian well before 1989. Here I will argue that Mircea Cărtărescu’s two major texts written in the late 1980s — the verse epic Levantul (The Levant) and the poetic novel Nostalgia — can be seen as works of world literature through their intertextual dialogue, even though they were created with no expectation that they would ever circulate through translation beyond national borders. With their intertextual rewriting in an ironic and parodic manner, Cărtărescu’s works have been presented abroad as landmarks of Romanian postmodernism, but this essay argues that Cărtărescu’s manner of rewriting is closer to the nostalgic, serious, and constructive rewriting found in radically modernist texts. Cărtărescu’s The Levant and Nostalgia illustrate Pascale Casanova’s point that the revolutionizing of literary practices comes from the periphery of the literary field. This was doubly so during a politically controlled period that allowed Cărtărescu to choose his intertexts in the absence of any strategic hierarchy that would please the center and free from any expectation of gaining recognition from the world literary space.

Contesting the use of the geospatial concepts of “periphery” and “center,” this essay argues that a mathematical metaphor, the Möbius strip, better expresses the continuously morphing, interrelated, dynamic mesh that we call modernism. One of the major but still understudied nodes on this strip was Kyiv (Russian: Kiev). Flourishing between 1905 and the early 1930s, modernism in Kyiv was distinctive by virtue of its historical-political circumstances and by its rapid acceptance, vitality, and astonishing efflorescence. After an overview of some of its most salient features, the latter part of this essay is devoted to the work of the self-proclaimed modernist stage and film director Les Kurbas and to two of his most important productions, Macbeth and Jimmie Higgins.

The map of modern Jewish literature is made up of contiguous cultural environments. Rather than a map of territories, it is a map of stylistic and conceptual intersections. But these intersections often leave no trace in a translation, a quotation, a documented encounter, or an archived correspondence. We need to reconsider the mapping of modern Jewish literature: no longer as a defined surface divided into territories of literary activity and publishing but as a dynamic and often implicit set of contiguities. Unlike comparative research that looks for the essence of literary influence in the exposure of a stylistic or thematic similarity between works, this article discusses two cases of “hidden contiguities” between modern Jewish literature and European literature. They occur in two distinct contact zones in which two European Jewish authors were at work: Zalman Shneour (Shklov, Belarus, 1887–New York, 1959), whose early work, on which this article focuses, was done in Tsarist Russia; and David Vogel (Podolia, Russia, 1891–Auschwitz, 1944), whose main work was done in Vienna after the First World War.

The modernist fascination with the Far East is a well-known phenomenon, driven among other things by the “decline of the West” zeitgeist. When adopted by peripheral communities involved in nation building, it often served other needs and, in the process, became distorted or disproportioned. This article focuses on the representation of the Far East in the Hebrew and Yiddish literatures of the interwar years. Its main argument is that the longing for the Far East in these literatures has contributed to their self-fashioning precisely as occidental and modern. Accordingly, this is an intriguing test case that sheds light on how one peripheral culture gazes at another, how one Other gazes at another — as opposed to traditional postcolonial research that tends to examine Self-Other or majority-minority relations. The article proposes the term “second-order modernism” to describe the fertile changes and disruptions inherent to the displacement of any modernist model onto a peripheral culture.

If modernism can be broadly understood as a revolt against Western ­traditions, this article asks how modernism in Japan relates to the revolt against Japanese and Chinese traditions that ushered modern Japanese literary realism into being. By juxtaposing Kawabata Yasunari’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929–30) with Kanagaki Robun’s Chronicle of the Telegrams from Saga (1874) and A Blade in the Night: The Tale of She-Demon Takahashi Oden (1879), we highlight the rarely examined role of newspaper journalism in the nascent development of modern Japanese realism and the ­modernist rebellion against it. Each of the works examined is thoroughly imbricated with the newspaper media of its day. Though the literary aims and motivating principles of the two authors differ, there are remarkable similarities in their exploitation of the ­newspaper medium to break the mold of what they saw as the stale literary conventions of their respective eras.

This article addresses Uri Nissan Gnessin’s modernist poetics through the notion of the contemporary. Examination of a selection of his early texts — a letter, a literary review, and the short story “Jenya” — written between 1900 and 1902 reveals his perception of Eastern European Jewish modernity as heterochronous and polytopic.

This essay considers the modernist cultural production of tango within the contexts of broadcast radio and popular print in the 1920s and 1930s, when both tango and radio were reaching their heyday. Because of its deep engagement with the changing social, economic, and media dynamics of Argentine modernity, its emphasis on cultural “newness” and experimental forms, as well as its play with matters of identity, embodiment, and belonging, tango deserves to be considered among the forms of Argentine modernism. I explore the connections between tango-canción (tango song) as broadcast on the radio, cultural conceptions of voice, and the new and changing understandings of gender identity, embodiment, and women’s roles as they emerge in popular magazines of the time. When we consider the modernism of tango or the shifting notions of embodiment, intimacy, and relation that accompany broadcast radio in the early twentieth century, we must recognize popular print as central to those developments and part of an intermedial nexus of responses to the situation of Argentine modernity. By examining the changing roles of tango’s cancionistas (female singers) in the twenties and thirties in the context of writing about women in the popular press, I show how the protocols and practices of radio and popular print offered crucial challenges to existing notions of gender in the mediascape of 1920s and 1930s Argentina.

This article explores the poetry of a group of mid-twentieth-century Turkish modernist poets known as İkinci Yeni, or the “Second New.” Engaging with global approaches to modernism that relate it to capitalist modernity, and building on the specific historical dynamics of 1950s Turkey, I use the Second New as a case study to show how modernist literature from the periphery can be compared with more canonized Western models without relying on claims of European originality or literary influence. Through readings of Second New poets Edip Cansever and Turgut Uyar, I show how their poetry combines classic modernist tropes familiar from nineteenth-century European works (flâneurie, the crowd, metropolitan life and its psychic effects) with more distinctly twentieth-century tropes (neon lights, nylon, the atom bomb, Cold War consumerism) in a manner that reveals the particular contours of Turkey’s incorporation into global capitalism. This form of peripheral modernism from Turkey sheds light on the combined and uneven nature of modernist literature throughout the world.

In 1929, Jewish left-wing modernists used language and images that evoked recent pogrom violence to describe Jewish and Arab sides of a violent conflict in Palestine. Jews around the world chose to identify with either the aggrieved Arabs who had lost their homes and land or the many innocent Jewish victims of grassroots violence in British Mandate Palestine. This article centers on the 1929 divide as a case study in how collective memories of anti-Jewish violence can be mobilized by competing sides in violent struggles. Drawing from Maurice Halbwachs’s definitions of collective memory and Michael Rothberg’s more recent formulation of “multidirectional memory,” Amelia Glaser argues that an examination of the Yiddish poets who used pogrom motifs to side with the Arabs who waged an anti-Jewish uprising helps us to understand more recent uses of Holocaust memory by activists, often on competing sides, discussing Israel/Palestine.

Modern Turkish poetry has been occupied with an aesthetic need to fashion a style for the “modern,” understanding it as a universal condition of being determined by notions of the “secular,” the “national,” and the “local.” Since the Garip and İkinci Yeni movements beginning in the early 1940s, Turkish poetry has also favored a straight and linear understanding of modernist aesthetics as having a stable past and future and a place. I argue that contemporary women poets, including Elif Sofya and Asuman Susam, by exposing entanglement rather than straight and clear development, expand as well as challenge the modernist event in Turkey. Their revisions of modernist aesthetics and composition of affective histories have explored the porous and mobile dimensions of queer time and space. These poets have both complemented and complicated the temporal and spatial axis of traditionally established modernist inquiry, gesturing toward what I call “peripheral cosmological aesthetics.”

A conversation with Chana Kronfeld in 2021 on the concept of the periphery, the margin, and the marginal foregrounds the unique literary and linguistic networks of Yiddish modernism. Explaining the linguistic, historical, and sociopolitical realities that inform modern/modernist Yiddish literature, Kronfeld demonstrates that “Yiddish poets didn’t see themselves as peripheral to anything. They saw their literature as central and they developed an option that was progressive and new in its resistance to the nation-state.”

Global Modernists on Modernism: A Conversation for Dibur. Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross are the editors of one of the most recent collection of modernist writings: Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). This collection features translations of works associated with modernism in Latin America, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, South Asia, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the South Pacific, the Malay Peninsula, and the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. As anticipated by its remarkable coverage, this volume is already having a transformative effect on discussions concerning modernism and its aesthetic, geographical, and cultural range. In their conversation for Dibur, Moody and Ross offer conceptual interrogations of various modes of rethinking modernism on a global scale, the Eurocentric power structures which, overtly or implicitly, come to undergird such approaches, and their broader methodology as editors.

At the Edges of Yiddishland: Editorial Praxes on the Jewish Translingual Threshold. As the editor of the “Modernism of the Ashkenazi Jewish Diaspora” module in Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology (2020), Resnikoff constellates the writings of six transnational Ashkenazi Jewish modernists who engage with Yiddish not only as a mother tongue but as an expanded conceptual poetic mode. The module includes work by Mikhl Likht, the New York–based Introspectivism group, Avot Yeshurun, and Dvoyre Fogel. Resnikoff contextualizes his praxes as a translingual (language-crossing) editor, translator, scholar, and writer working at the thresholds of late-Yiddish modernisms and their variegated afterlives in other tongues. He concludes the present essay with a short work of poetics as a test or case study for the speculative expanded-Yiddish language-scape that his editorial practice, writing, and translation together attempt to cast into relief.

Reports from an Outpost of Modernist Studies. Andrew Reynolds and Bonnie Roos are the coeditors of the collection of essays Behind the Masks of Modernism: Global and Transnational Perspectives (University Press of Florida, 2016). The essays in this diverse collection reconsider the meaning of “modernism” by taking an interdisciplinary approach and stretching beyond the Western modernist canon and the literary scope of the field. In this essay Reynolds and Roos describe some of the thought processes that contributed to their decision to publish their collection, the complexities that emerged from the blending of modernist studies with postcolonial approaches, and the rationale behind their use of masks as a unifying thematic thread.

Modernism and Its Concepts. In 2016, Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz published A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, which was the first anthology about global modernism to invite essays organized by intellectual keyword, or concept, rather than by geography or national literary history. Sixteen leading critics working at the conjunction of modernism, comparative literature, and world literature agreed to participate in the venture. The result: drawing on archives beyond the European center, contributors showed how new global approaches are transforming the intellectual paradigms we have long associated with modernism and also bringing an idiosyncratic array of new paradigms into view. In an interview conducted in spring 2021, Hayot and Walkowitz reflect on whether they were imagining new durable concepts for global modernism or instead were imagining a new approach to the history of concepts and the way they have shaped the field and could shape it going forward. They choose the latter.

Central Issues in Studies of Modernist Peripheries. The essay reflects on key issues of definition in modernist studies and comparative modernisms by returning to the author’s edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (2012). In particular, it assesses the continued relevance of center-periphery models of global study and the formal dimension of modernism while speculating on the future of modernist and literary studies in the university.

Global Modernisms Reconsidered. The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms is a collection of essays devoted to investigating the geographic and temporal scope of modernism. The assembled essays include historical surveys of specific modernist movements, comparisons between different national traditions, and theoretical reflections on the nature of global modernism. In my reflections on this collection, I consider how the volume sought to define the terms of relationality that would guide the field of global modernism in its subsequent years. I then proceed to make a case for the utility of world-systems theory for modernist studies, using as my primary example the Sestiger movement of 1960s South Africa.

Yiddish book art exemplifies how sacred Jewish forms shaped secular cultural expression for twentieth-century artists and writers in a variety of geographic and linguistic settings. Reading El Lissitzky’s Khad gádye (One kid; 1919) within the context of European modernism demonstrates how Jewish artists straddled multiple aesthetic affiliations, bringing sensitivity for iconic forms in conversation with abstraction and ethnography.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University