Modernism and Justification (MSA13, Oct. 6-9, Buffalo, NY)
This panel takes inspiration from recent work in pragmatist sociology – particularly Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot's landmark On Justification: Economies of Worth – that seeks to move beyond sociology's disciplinary focus on how unconscious collectivities exert pressure on unknowing individuals, on the one hand, and economists' disciplinary focus on rational actors engaging in self-interested commerce on the other. Boltanski and Thévenot ask instead: how do people construct agreement and settle disputes in everyday life? What higher principles, physical objects and stable institutional arrangements do they draw upon in order to justify their own behavior and make criticisms of others, and under what notions of the common good do they form agreements? Turning away from Foucauldian, Bourdieuvian and Althusserian analytical traditions that focus on pre-existing — and thus agentless — forces of ideology, symbolic violence, and power, On Justification seeks to describe the making of the social itself, no longer as a coercive force but a situated relation that works or fails to work.
For modernist studies, Boltanski and Thévenot's book — along with the work of their colleague Bruno Latour, and other recent works of theory that have broached the topic of justification, like Sianne Ngai's "Merely Interesting" — offers the possibility of de-reifying some of our own discipline's most persistent concepts: notions of the deep social (as expressed in anthropological primitivism, Marxist base-superstructure theory, T.S. Eliot's "mind of Europe" and Lionel Trilling's "authenticity"); of the artwork or literary work that arise as counterpart or in opposition to an existing social totality (in Hegel, Adorno, Pound and Eliot); of notions of the public as implicitly rational (Habermas, Dewey) or irrational (Gustave Le Bon, Walter Lippmann); or, indeed, the notion of modernist artists and writers as a permanent minority within a larger, relatively homogeneous, and hostile collectivity (so common to sociologically inflected discussions of modernism and the coterie, the "expert" group, or the highbrow audience).
Against these familiar understandings of modernism's place in society, the concept of "justification" puts us back on the flattened plane on which the original modernists acted and draws our attention to the different ways of arguing for and creating worth (as well as arguing against and critiquing worth) that they took advantage of. How did modernist poets, writers, critics, reviewers, teachers, editors, or archivists make references and build realities to form criticisms or agreements? What would a canon of (failed as well as successful) modernist justification look like? What how-to manuals, epistolary disputes, pieces of advice, modes of complaint, forms of talk, and irrefutable evidence would it include?
This panel is subject to official approval by the MSA.