The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Conference Preview: Interview with Charles M. Tung

The keynote speaker for the 2017 Annual Conference of The Space Between Society is Charles M. Tung.  Tung is Associate Professor of English at Seattle University, where he teaches courses in modernism and literary theory.  He has published in Symploke and Modernism/modernity, and his monograph, Modernism and Time Machines, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.  This interview was conducted over email in April 2017 by Janine Utell, Editor of The Space Between.

Let’s start with an exciting development:  your book, recently contracted by Edinburgh University Press.  Tell us about it:  title, big ideas, when we might expect to see it?


CMT— Yes, thank you—I so appreciate the opportunity to talk about it!  I’m very happy that Modernism and Time Machines will be part of EUP’s Critical Studies in Modernist Culture series (edited by Rebecca Beasley and Tim Armstrong).  I hope the book will be out in 2018.  The argument is that the functions of the time obsession in canonical modernist literature and art can be connected to the insights produced by time-travel fantasies, both of which arise around the same moment.  If we plug the time fixation in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art into the trope of the time machine, we get a revision, expansion, and complication of what both of them are doing.  For me, the most interesting modernist and SF [sci-fi] texts are both going far beyond the exploration of subjective temporalities and the thrill of moving back and forth in time; together they seem to be constructing and revealing a multiplicity of non-standard times and strange timespaces, as well as some interesting ways of imagining history otherwise.  The book has chapters on this proliferation of clocks in modernism; on an aspect of “primitivism” that I reread as interested less in deep origins than in the disjunctive timings and times of the heterochronic body; on parallel plotlines in Virginia Woolf and Philip Dick as an exploration of the desynchronization of coeval histories and the production of alternate historical possibility; on time lags and differential pace in William Faulkner, Jessica Hagedorn, time-travel cinema; and, finally, on enormous timescales in H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Terence Malick.  Another way of nutshelling the argument is to say that I’m interested in the way certain strands of modernism and SF defamiliarize time itself with respect to its pace/rate (not uniform), scale (not human or earthly), and number (not singular).  


A major preoccupation of your work, it seems, is the relationships among modernism, attitudes towards time that emerged in the early 20th century, and time travel narratives, which are often dismissed as “genre fiction” due to a sniffy attitude towards “sci-fi.”  On these themes, I especially liked your essay “Modernism, Time Machines, and the Defamiliarization of Time” in Configurations (2015); incidentally, your writing about time, heterochrony, and narrative in that piece really helped me work through my own reading in texts beyond the bounds of modernism, particularly Jeannette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.  In your recent article for Modernism/modernity, it seems you see the move to position the “popular” work of sci-fi alongside the “high art” of modernism as an extension of recent thinking on “bad modernism.”  Could you say a bit about how you see your work extending the definition and field of modernist studies, “bad” or otherwise?


CMT— Thanks for the kind words!  Yes, I’m definitely interested in texts that allow us to read across the ingrained categories that have separated modernism and SF on a variety of grounds (style, genre, narrow periodizing factors), and of course not every text affords us this opportunity.  But when it is possible, I have found that to close the distance between these two aesthetic modes yields not just a simple catalogue of similar moves in contrasting locations.  It becomes possible to see hitherto unnoticed operations and effects in both, to re-read standard takes on modernist temporalities, and conversely, to revise our understanding of the cultural fantasy of time travel.  I appreciate the expansions of the new modernist studies.  I’m of course cautious about thinking in terms of the singularity of the new and the old when my objects themselves are trying to consider more than one sequence and timeline. Addition, multiplication, division, and complication are paramount:  I think of my small contribution to the expanded field as a submission to the “bad” archive of radical and strange rethinkings of the shapes of time, the consistency of timespace, and the nature of history; but I also hope it is a way of considering the temporal expansion in modernist studies beyond the simple extension of the period to the far end of the twentieth century and beyond.  

On the last point, the badness that I referred to in “Baddest Modernism” is the effect of an expansion that yields a variety of timescales, and the difficulties that art faces in providing aesthetic satisfactions (affects usually scaled exclusively to the psychological and sociological)—not only when it scopes out and stretches the line, but also when it encounters the clash and disjunction of many lines and scales.  These bad refusals of the one, true timescale show up at the front end of the twentieth century in all sorts of ways and have been making reappearances in recent critical arenas.  The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent investigations in the space of where postcolonial concerns intersect with the issue of climate change is a well-known instance:  the Anthropocene presents “the challenge of having to think human agency over multiple and incommensurable scales at once …. the necessity of thinking disjunctively.”  The effort to think disjunctively has often appeared as or geared itself to a straightforward rejection of historicism—I think of the significant work done by theorists of queer temporalities (see the roundtable discussion organized by Elizabeth Freeman in GLQ and Valerie Traub’s critique of queer temporalization as a “New Unhistoricism”).  But for me the response is not a categorical repudiation of narrative and sequence and linearity, but a rejection of the assumption that there is only one.  

Michel Serres, in his conversations with Bruno Latour, imagines a number of strange historicisms—none of which I take to be a repudiation of historicism as such—that are geared to the bumpy, warped, and non-Euclidean landscapes on which events pass and don’t pass, fluctuate, percolate.  His student Latour says his critical rapprochements—his machinic combinations of disparate things—are bizarre, and he teases Serres that his method is akin to having a time machine, a flying saucer that makes him “absolutely indifferent to temporal distances”!  But this time machine is not indifferent to historical difference, but in fact more attuned to a kind of heterochronic historicity and the irregular and various natures of timespaces.  His example is the late-model car as not a contemporary object but as a disparate aggregate from a variety of different periods:  one part “was invented at the turn of the century, another ten years ago, and Carnot’s cycle is almost two hundred years old.”  The periodization of modernity (on the model of some of our premodern and early modern colleagues’ efforts to explore anachronism, and our colleagues who are thinking about modernities beyond Europe and North America) seems increasingly interested not only in these kinds of heterochronic folds of historiographic timespace, but in both the scale of futurity (as Mark McGurl’s riff on Pound suggests, modernity—the steam engine? the bomb? plastics?—could be news that will stay news for unimaginable lengths), as well as the multiplicity and heterogeneity of the future.

Further on that recent article, which appeared in a special issue on “Modernist Inhumanisms,” how would you define “modernist inhumanisms,” and how did you see your work fitting into the conversation that issue was meant to provoke?  How does your work on time prompt or further thinking about the “inhuman,” “nonhuman,” etc.?


CMT— I think of modernist inhumanism not as a simple negation of the human or total indifference to the human, but as the exploration of possibilities and the urgency of thinking through temporal and historical disjunctions, as we are now more explicitly compelled to do in our reckoning with a potential trajectory “towards not emancipation, but survival” to use Sean Pryor’s phrase from the issue—with social and political cycles, for example, in relation to the slow catastrophe and uneven violence of the environment.  The first section of Aaron Jaffe’s introduction to the special issue is titled “Affordances,” and I read his provocation as a call to discern what different systems and objects make possible for/to various actors.  In my mind, this resonates with (but exceeds) the desire in many modernist texts to find the limits of their own form or their dream of departure from those conventions.  Modernism is often a name for a trove of exit strategies.  Hence, Jaffe notes the exanthropic as a response to the limitations of humanism.  However, he also contrasts the negations of revolution with the pluralization of worlds, and it’s the pluralization that is of greatest interest to me—time-scalar affordances.  

The turn towards “the Outside”—the speculative turn to what lies beyond the human, the “great outdoors” of thought and being—can of course amount to an ideological quietism, as Julian Murphet rightly points out in the issue.  I do not have a synthetic overview of the nonhuman turn and its various important interventions, but from what I understand, this turn moves around a gravity well defined by problem of ontological relationality (and correlationism).  The danger here is what Murphet characterizes as the ardency of non-relation.  I think the special issue takes a different tack, and the contributors steer around what Jaffe calls the ontological horror show in order to explore the tensions, gaps, and overlap among different reference frames.  I can’t and don’t want to speak for all the other excellent essays, but I sensed this navigation in Cristina Iuli’s interest in disjunction between literary form and media and communication mechanisms, for instance, and Jennifer Fay’s reading of atomic screen tests as a way of testing the limits of human spectatorial experience and its technologies, as well as a site for thinking the scaling up of testing itself without the goal of durable worlds.  Alberto Toscano’s piece is about the imperative to develop new aesthetic organs capable of dealing with the scalar disjunction between the extent of technological innovation and the reach of imaginative powers.  Kate Marshall sees in both modernism and the new weird fiction inhuman points of view and alien narration that detach perspective and narrativity from assumptions about interiority and personhood and instead open onto the nonhuman landscapes that inform some of contemporary theory’s speculations. 

My own take on modernist inhumanism is that the constitution of and relations among objects are a function of the relations among scales.  Recent efforts in deep time and big history will often zoom out in a way that collapses the differences among scales, with smaller durations getting swallowed up by larger spans.  In my view, what makes scalar zoom modernist is less the dissolution of familiar things by itself and the hunt for the exit than it is the clash of scales one encounters when one exits and realizes there are a plurality of things to exit.  The inhuman is a way of thinking about what affords the production and disclosure of plurality.  To some, Ernst Bloch’s interest in nonsynchronism and nonsimultaneity beyond a straightforward dialectic seemed politically insufficient in his analysis of fascism’s exploitation of people “left behind” by the present.  It feels to me that this is a timely debate about a complex untimeliness that is more and more important to think about today…


For readers interested in the problematizing of periodization in modernism—modernism, intermodernism, late modernism—how do you think about the concept of “second modernism,” and how has this been a productive space for you?


CMT— As I mentioned above, I’m not hostile to periodization at all.   Sometimes we lose track of its provisional character and the way that periodizations are leveraged upon possible futures and pasts.  I think we need as many periodizing sequences as possible to understand the present, which is not a point so much as a transverse cut or cross-section that reveals a bundle of trajectories.  Some of those trajectories are short, and some are very long, and the pacing and shape of these trajectories are variable.  I’m very interested in the idea of “second modernism,” which I take from Jaffe’s book The Way Things Go, one focus of which is on the way modernism’s fascination with deep time prepares it to reconstrue the junk littering its waste lands—not simply as present detritus or past artifacts but also as elements in a gigantic, temporal Rube-Goldberg machine performing and figuring a kind of side-effectuality.  Second modernism picks up on Ulrich Beck’s thoughts on a speculative and reflexive aspect of modernity that replaces the myopic focus on the circulation and distribution of goods with the wide-angle concern for the management of long-term bads, the side effects of industrial modernity that will show up far beyond the circuits of the present.  This way of problematizing periodization often seems to focus on scale in the singular.  The recent conversations about the Anthropocene suggest a type of drastic expansion for the study of new modernisms, recalculating the waning of historicity in a “long now” as the far-futural risks of the “long new.”  The current complaint that the Anthropocene is the latest fashion in academic discourse is troubled by a bad, inhuman dose of irony.  But one of the weird aspects of Anthropocene periodization that scientists themselves are concerned about, despite the nearly unanimous vote last year at the 2016 International Geological Congress in Cape Town to confirm the beginnings of the new geological epoch in the various accelerations and booms of the mid-twentieth century, is that we must periodize, as one scientist put it, for an alien geologist millions of years hence.  What will survive of us is not-us.

But again, for me, it is not just the stretching of periodization forward but what the scoping out reveals that is equally interesting.  The modernist Anthropocene yields the insight that in the distension of a period is a temptation to collapse all times and histories down to one fundamental timescape, and that what we are confronted with is in fact the crucial tensions among differently-scaled clocks.  We should be able to add to and revise our accounts of modernism as an ephemerality fetish, or as a critique of modernity’s microtime by means of a retreat into a deep and singular past (ironically one that anchored the same progressivist history producing ever shorter moments and marking up parts of the globe as irremediably anterior).  Second modernism would not simply shoot forward to the absence of all familiar protagonists or antagonists in which “our present” will have become the trace of an enormously distant past.  Rather, it thinks about the various scales necessary to track the long-term dangers of the instant itself, the risks of a unified, world-standard time, and the hazards of small-scale forms, and it imagines the various itineraries of ecstatic intervals, “primitive” pasts, and customary aesthetic shapes—epiphanies, Magdalenian cave paintings, downscaled literary forms—as strange sites of varying timelines and futures, some of which vindictively, in Lily Briscoe’s words, “outlast by a million years … the gazer.”  My next project is about these relations among big clocks—the Clock of the Long Now, the Doomsday Clock—and the proliferation of clocks tracking modernity’s futures.  

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