The Copy in Global Modernism

new-vocab-for-global-modernismIs “make it the same”––and not “make it new”––the true catchphrase of modernism? So I argue in my contribution to A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, just out from Columbia University Press. Although I’m still awaiting a hardcopy, I’ve been able to preview the rich offerings that Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz have assembled through JSTOR. Below are some edited extracts from the introduction to my essay on the “Copy”:

“Make it new.” The original, the foreign, the idiolectic—modernism has been told as a story of novelty, strangeness, and singular genius. And this story has been given new inflection as scholars have sought to emphasize the variety and global reach of modernisms in the plural. Yet “make it the same” might equally serve as the catchphrase of modernism. Modernism emerged out of a vast increase in copying, to which it responded through repetition, appropriation, and remixing, from Eisenstein’s montage, Duchamp’s ready-mades, Stein’s repetitions as insistences, Picasso’s and Braque’s collage, Joyce’s pastiche, Melville’s Bartleby, Borges’s Menard, and Burroughs’s and Gysin’s cut-ups to Xu Zhimo’s translations and versioning, Gandhi’s printing press, Sergei Tretyakov’s newspaper as twentieth-century epic, and Kamau Brathwaite’s audio and computer-graphic remediation and self-rewriting. Even the slogan status of Pound’s phrase “make it new” is the product of later critical appropriations, and the phrase itself is a translation, a copy of a centuries-old text that was probably mistranscribed from a far more ancient source. The copy’s centrality to modernism is increasingly legible in the early twenty-first century, when reproduction triumphs over production in the billions of everyday acts through which we produce and consume links and likes on Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, and other social media.

Modernism has often been seen as a site of resistance to the emergence of the copy as a cultural dominant. The emphasis in Anglo-American modernism on making it new has been influentially read as deriving from the need “to produce something which resists and breaks through the force of gravity of repetition as a universal feature of commodity equivalence.” Yet by attending to modernist works that radically foreground copying and by recognizing similarly repetitive structures even in works that seek to resist sameness through strangeness, we can complicate the opposition between mass reproduction, consumer capitalism, and globalization, on the one hand, and modernist aestheticism, on the other. The copy thereby provides a way to negotiate the ongoing rift between readings of modernism—and between parts of modernist practice—that emphasize sociological, technological, political, and economic context and those that stress the particularity and singular genius of modernist works.

The copy—more than its apparent cousins, influence, imitation, mimesis, adaptation, and translation—also offers a means to question global modernism’s temporal and spatial hierarchies these terms, to write of non-Western, peripheral, or global modernism is to articulate this mimetic desire “to speak in the other’s language in order to be recognized by the other” that is the West. Within the “make it new” rhetoric of modernism, mimetic desire “imposes a historical lag between the other’s behavior and one’s own. To be caught up in mimetic desire requires one invariably to be ‘behind the times.’” The copy, by contrast, does not “privilege being temporally ‘first.’” Hence the “strategy of re-writing” not only attempts, as in some avant-garde practice, “to short-circuit or interrupt the text’s own representational construction”; it also undoes the structure of mimetic desire that shapes the way we think modernism transnationally. Just as the “anti-theatrical” theater of Brecht and other modernists was a means of “keeping under control and mediating the theatrical mimesis,” so copy works to denaturalize the framework of originality, innovation, and mimetic desire in approaches to global modernism.

About Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.
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