Workshop Four:
What Price the Modern?
4-6 May 2004
Foster Court 114, UCL
Project Leader:
Professor Timothy Mathews (French, UCL)
Research Assistant: Dr Ross Forman
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations,
pp. 245-255. (AKA “On the Concept of History”).
[Full text available at
Judith Butler, “Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of
Formalism” in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues
on the Left, pp. 11-43.
Johannes Fabian, “Our Time, Their Time, No Time: Coevalness Denied”
in Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, pp. 37-70.
Leo Ou-Fan Lee, “Remapping Shanghai” in Shanghai Modern: The
Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945, pp. 3-42.
Fredric Jameson, “Marxism and Postmodernism” in The Cultural Turn:
Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998, pp. 33-49.
Aet Annist (Social Anthropology, UCL)
The Irony of Modernising Traditional Communities: The Case of Setos
The presentation is primarily based on the history chapter of my thesis, which
discusses the history of communities in Estonia and in Seto country, a culturally
different area that was reunited to Estonia after 700 years of being part of Russia.
During the process of modernisation in the early 20th century, independent
Estonia made every effort to modernise Setos, which had been immersed in
"backwards"Russian traditions. A particular emphasis was given to overcoming
its traditional commonality. The "modern community" was seen as an
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institutionalised entity in the form of voluntary organisations, various producer
and consumer unions and cultural organisations such as choirs, brass bands etc. I
will discuss the effects of such efforts on Seto identity. Finally, I will briefly
outline the current visions of commonality (which is the main topic for my
thesis) in which the Seto area comes out as the most successful modern rural
region precisely due to its traditionalism.
Paul Bandia (French, Concordia)
Translation as Mediation: From Orality to Writing, from Tradition to the Modern
This presentation is about the role translation plays in negotiating the links, or
the interface, between tradition and the modern in the representation of an
orally-based language culture in a western metropolitan idiom. The discussion is
based on the premise that writing the oral tradition of a colonized people in the
language of the colonizer can be likened to a translation process akin to
negotiating the boundaries between tradition and the modern in the postcolony.
Translation is understood here in its metaphorical sense of displacement or
transportation of the Other from a familiar base of tradition to an alien colonizing
context of the modern. Several related questions, including those proposed for
this workshop, are addressed: To what extent is the writing of oral narratives in
postcolonial fiction a quest for a voice or a sense of identity within the context of
the modern? How does one characterize such transpositions in terms of
modernity, and does modernism necessarily imply the loss of tradition? Can
translation as mediation between tradition and the modern be used to counter
the effects of empire; can there be modernity without empire? The role of
translation in negotiating the passage from orality to writing can throw light on
the connections between tradition and the modern in the postcolonial context.
I’ll be addressing Johannes Fabian’s text, and Leo Ou-Fan Lee’s to a certain
Elleke Boehmer (English, Royal Holloway)
Modernity, Jameson and Terror
The focus of my presentation will be to explore the link that exists between the
act of terror, and modernity, given that terrorism, in its incarnation as anarchism,
and its manifestation as dynamite explosion, was born with the late nineteenth
century modern world. Using Jameson's article I want to ask whether, far from
being an irruption of 'the barbaric' or primitive, the terroristic act represents an
often pressurized if not desperate attempt by marginalised groups to seize hold
of the rights and privileges of modernity.
June Boyce-Tillman (Applied Music, King Alfred’s)
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Music and Spirituality: The Price of Modernity
This presentation will suggest that the fracture of the link between music and
spirituality was made complete in the modernist project reinforced by the
demands of the Academy. It will set out a model of various interacting lenses
through which music can be viewed and how spirituality was systematically
excluded and devalued in the work of analysts and critics. It will examine the reemergence of notions of spirituality within the work of composers like John
Tavener and how these link up with notions of spirituality in the wider society.
Work Referenced: Ways of Knowing (2005) ed. Chris Clarke, Imprint Academic.
Simon Gikandi (English, Princeton)
Modernity and the Question of Time
In my presentation I will return to the question of modernity and the politics of
time, focusing on an issue that has haunted theories of modernity, especially in
regard to Africa: When and what was modern time? How is it represented in
narrative and lived experience? How is it connected to what Benjamin called the
destruction of tradition? I will use sections of Fabians work on temporality to
explore how modernity (and modernism) systematically invented the other as a
product of a time that is apprehensible only in its pastness or temporal
emptiness. I will then show that the idea of Africa as an entity that belongs to the
past, or one that is located outside time, continuously comes face to face with the
pressing demands for a narrative of what Benjamin calls the Now-time; I will
argue that it is only by transcending and destroying the dichotomous narrative
of time that we can imagine experiences beyond what has come to be known as
the discourse of Afro-pessimism.
Hung Bin HSU (History, SOAS)
Universalised Bodies?: The Experiences of Opium Smokers in Modern Taiwan
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, opium was widely used in both China and
Taiwan as a kind of medicine and recreation. At the same time, a series of
important international events occurred in East Asia that centrally involved
opium. Owing to this distinguishing characteristic, it comes no surprise that
extensive historical researches have been done on history of opium, especially on
the famous case in China.
But the history of opium in China is confusing. Not only have different historians
chosen different stances, but also people produced contradictory statements on
opium in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, when opium users talked
about the reason they started to use opium, some of them said that it is because
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opium can cure their diseases, such as diarrhea and cough, or fulfill their life
energy. But on the other hand, we also find people claiming that their life energy
and money were flowing away because of opium, and claiming that even the
Chinese nation and race was weakened by the drug. How do we deal with these
kinds of contradictory statements? Is opium beneficial or harmful? In other
words, what is the ‘nature’ of opium?
In this article, I try to clarify this dilemma through an approach of body
experiences. I borrow this idea from historian Shigehisa Kuriyama, who clearly
shows us how ancient Chinese people felt/perceived a different body, and how
this idea of body could be linked to the cosmology of the ancient Chinese. In the
first part of my argument, I reconstruct the body that opium users perceived
when they were lying on the bed and smoking opium pipe and establish the
relation between this body image and social image of opium.
In the second part of this article, I discuss the medical practice which was
forcibly imposed on opium users in the early 20th-century Taiwan and show how
modern medicine could transform the body of opium users into an uncivilized
one, and then discipline it into a new, modern one. Focusing on the techniques
and knowledge produced by modern medicine, I show how the history of opium
in Taiwan can be an important case study to emphasise the role that medicine
and science played in the process of modernisation.
Svend Erik Larsen (Comparative Literature, Aarhus, Denmark)
Cohesion through Narrative: A Literary Paradox
It is commonly accepted that all human cultures, independently of their status in
relation to any variety of Modernity, produce and reproduce narratives, and that
narratives serve a number of basic functions for the constitution of both
individual and collective identities in different historical settings. Through
narratives we imagine ourselves in time and space interacting with others with
the possibility of judging this social space and its media of interaction from
various point of views and maybe also by way of a panoply of narrators. This
cross-cultural status of narration is a necessary precondition enabling us not only
to posit tradition as a theoretical possibility, but actually to practice it across
historical and cultural boundaries. If this continuous and simultaneously
transformative if not subversive practice by way of narratives is central to
Modernity, it follows that the traditional narrative may be contested but never
annihilated without the destruction of this necessary practice as a corollary.
From this point of view, narratives offer first of all a cultural instrument, and
only secondarily a fictional strategy. But when fictionality comes into play, often
manifested as a pronounced fictional selfawareness, a paradox is produced
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which is important for Modernism and calls for a theoretical reflection. The
cohesiveness produced by narratives, also when it refers to real events, then
stands out as a construction, the more convincing the more constructed. Thus,
narratives offer a double-edged cultural instrument that latently separates its
cohesiveness from its reality claim and thus makes cultural identities unstable
through the very way they are created. By sheer repetition, innocently as it were,
of the narrative practice, called tradition, this immanent contradiction may be
obfuscated or entirely overlooked. The huge bulk of culturally active narratives
that abound in various verbal and non-verbal media today shows it. Only a
theoretical reflection will be able to maintain the full paradoxical nature of
narratives, and thereby also maintain, on the one hand, a critical stance to the
actually produced narratives and, on the other, reveal the dynamics sparked by
the paradox for the transformation of narratives in cultural history. The paper
will explore this process by briefly pointing to a few relatively new salient forms
of narrative in present day mainly Western culture.
Jenny Lee (Chinese Film, SOAS)
Viewing the Sixth, the Seventh, or No Generation Whatsoever: Xu Jinglei and
Contemporary Female Directors in Mainland China
Mainland China's contemporary film scene is fraught with a history of
conflicting modernities that encompasses: cultural imperialism around the turn
of the 20th century, pre-revolutionary modernism of the 1920s and 1930s, civil
war and foreign invasion, giant overhauls of art for society's sake and the
development of socialist realism, followed by the dramatic strides of ambitious
directors ever since the Cultural Revolution and the birth of global industry that
we see today. It is the movements of women in this final category with which my
research is primarily concerned. I will discuss the work of one of China's newest
young female directors, Xu Jinglei, who has already garnered critical success
with her directorial debut, “Me and Dad” (2003), followed by the more polished
and commercially successful “Letter from an Unknown Woman” (2004). The
quality of her filmmaking, its critical reception, and its overall significance for the
status of female directors in Chinese cinema are the three main concerns of this
Miriam Leonard (Classics and Ancient History, Bristol)
Historicizing Antigone: Derrida and the Politics of Reception
This paper examines a particular methodological fault-line which has polarised
the study of the reception of classical texts. The ‘textual’ versus the ‘historical’
approach to the Classical Tradition underlies many of the most important
questions facing classicists today. The paper maintains that these two
perspectives can and should be performed side by side. It argues from an
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ethical/political perspective that the distance between past and present, in other
words the historical dimension of reception should be celebrated rather than
erased in the encounter between modern reader and classical text. For it is
precisely in this distance between antiquity and the present that a space for the
political reading of the Classics is created. The paper takes as its central example
Derrida’s reading of the Antigone in Glas. Or more precisely, Derrida’s reading
of Hegel’s reading of Sophocles’ Antigone. In its passage through Hegel,
Derrida’s Antigone parades the myth of an unmediated return to an ‘originary’
classical text. And yet, it is precisely by insisting on the historical dimension of
Hegel’s appropriation that Derrida is able to perform his deconstructive
commentary. In the Derridean reading Hegel’s textual appropriation of
Sophocles cannot be kept separate from the political histories of antiquity and
Timothy Mathews (French, UCL)
Modernism and Oblivion
Benjamin reports a remark made to him in 1934 by Brecht: ‘Depth doesn’t get
you anywhere at all. Depth is a separate dimension, it’s just depth – and there’s
nothing whatsoever to be seen in it.’ Benjamin’s reply, broadly, is that the ‘true
measure of life is in memory’. These two positions suggest much about the
conflicts between these two seekers of revolution, each seeking a reconciliation of
the useful and the aesthetic which the rise of Stalinism and Fascism made such
an urgent issue to them. Perhaps different ideas of the modern are at stake here
also, and the struggles to reconcile them: between Enlightenment Modernism
and the Avant-Garde; between synchronic and psychoanalytic approaches to
history. The proposition here is that if psychoanalysis has a part to play in
Avant-Gardist radicalism, it is in terms of its legacies of oblivion, its theory
knowledge derived from the fact that we forget. What idea of history or society
could be built on that? Answers may be provided by looking at the practices of
Blanchot, Giacometti and Sebald.
Montre Aza Missouri (Africa, SOAS)
Representations of Yoruba Spirituality and Cultural Identity in
Nigerian Film and Video
Abstract not provided.
Jonathan Monroe (Comparative Literature, Cornell)
Composite Cultures, Chaos-World
Understanding form, in the poet Robert Creeley's formulation, as an extension of
content, content as an extension of form, what challenges do Walter Benjamin's
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“Theses on the Philosophy of History” pose for contemporary readers in the
aftermath of 1989 and 9/11? How do we read now, on the other side of the Cold
War context that framed the text's initial reception, its famous call for a criticalhistorical “tiger's leap” that would allow us to construct a Marxian constellation
between past and present? Have the modernist principles at work in the text's
formal composition (montage, disjunction, disruption) retained their aesthetic
and political resonance, value, and effect? From the present perspective, in the
age of globalization and the postcolonial, what legacy remains from the
“Theses,” in particular, for contemporary poetry and what Edouard Glissant has
called a “poetics of relation”?
Laura Mulvey (History of Art, Film, and Visual Media, Birkbeck)
The 'New Woman': Envisaging Utopian Tradition in an Emblem of Modernity
As a point of departure, the paper will take two small points in Walter
Benjamin's ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: his use of the terms ‘image’
and ‘arrest’ to reflect on cinema as a medium in which the flow of the past, and
thought about it, may be halted. Returning to certain films of the late 1920s, the
paper will consider the ‘new woman’ as an image of modernity's unfulfilled
future, an imaginary tradition to which the present might look back politically as
well as nostalgically.
Wen-Chin Ouyang (Near and Middle East, SOAS)
Abstract not provided.
Dimitris Papanikolaou (Modern Greek, Oxford)
Modernity's Utopics: Rereading the Fascination with Popular Culture
Abstract not provided.
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Jan Parker (Centre for Research in Education and Educational
Technology, Open University)
‘What’s He to Hecuba...’ or to Us?: Brecht's Fallacy of the Pathetic
‘What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him that he should weep for her?’
That is the question! Or rather questions:
What two-way (he to Hecuba as well as Hecuba to him) relationship
affects over time, culture and language?
Why does he (the actor, the rememberer, the witnesser) weep?
Should he (the Player) weep? Or in Brecht’s word is that ‘barbaric’?
A similarly complex performative and metatheatrical layering as that in
Hamlet’s “Mousetrap” surrounds one of the most “pathetic” scenes in Greek
tragedy: Sophocles’ Electra weeping over Orestes’ supposed ashes. This scene
generated one of Brecht’s most swingeing attacks on the “barbarism” of enacted
pathos; an attack expressed differently but congruently about Fiona Shaw’s very
immediately affecting playing of the role in Belfast.
I want to argue that pathos is generated in fact by three distancing devices.
And to consider four different models of how a play “affects” over time and
space, continuity, revivification, tradition, discontinuity; four models which may
(but I will hope the discussion will explore this) map onto four passages in
Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”.
Ian Patterson (English, Cambridge)
Time, Verse and Translation
Abstract not provided.
Christopher Prendergast (Kings College, Cambridge)
Walter Benjamin and the Price of the Modern
This presentation will be centred on Walter Benjamin's ‘Theses on the
Philosophy of History’, by way of two interrelated questions: first what is
entailed by the first term of our topic, the term ‘price’ in the title, 'The Price of the
Modern’?. The second question engages the other term ‘modern’ and the famous
pair ‘modernity/modernism’, as a semantic question but also, and inextricably, a
temporal one, a ‘when’ as well as an ‘is’ question, namely ‘when was/is
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modernity?’. Both questions converge on the answers we might imagine
Benjamin's text giving to the overarching question of the ‘price of the modern’.
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João Cezar de Castro Rocha (Letters, State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Burning or Building Museums? Modernity, Tradition, and Nostalgia"
Abstract not provided.
Christopher Rosenmeier (Chinese, SOAS)
Representations of Tradition in the Fiction of Shi Zhecun and Xu Xu
In the early 1930s, Shi Zhecun wrote several modernist short stories which
incorporated elements of traditional Chinese fiction in novel ways. By going
against contemporary trends, Shi made an avant-garde statement of protest in
the literary field of the time. Yet some years later another author, Xu Xu, used
similar techniques to achieve quite different effects. Xu wrote playfully romantic
pieces that became enormously popular at the time. This presentation looks at
how tradition is represented in a few works by these two authors and how
different cultural contexts set the meaning of their works apart.
George Rousseau (Modern History, Oxford)
Nostalgia in the Time of Modernism: Nostalgia's Third Phase
•Text Engaged: Johannes Fabian
•Research question number 2: ‘Must modernity involve nostalgia?’
This talk configures some of nostalgia's genealogies by focusing on its third
phase - Nostalgia in the Time of Modernism - in an attempt to characterize how
Modernist nostalgia differed from its forebears and, especially, from its principal
successor, Postmodernist nostalgia. It claims that nostalgia is inherent in the
human condition; that what distinguishes its hallmark-features in any epoch,
movement or writer-artist are local circumstances and conditions defined by time
and place and cultural vectors, especially in the political, socio-economic and
nationalistic realms. Specifically, it demonstrates how Modernist nostalgia broke
off from its Romantic ancestor.
Maria Aparecida Andrade Salgueiro (Letters, State
University of Rio de Janeiro/CNPq, Brazil)
Facing the Edge: The Role of Translation in Particular Cultural Contexts
Departing from topics discussed in the second workshop, this presentation
concentrates on cross-cultural translation. Mainly referring to Jameson, Fabian
and Butler, it will touch issues of power, gender and geopolitics in the study of
translation and intercultural communication as far as Afro-American and AfroBrazilian texts are concerned. Discussing transformation and re-enunciation in
some of these texts, it deals with the role of translation in negotiating the
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connections between tradition to the modern, as well as contributing to the broad
scope of discussions under the title of the present workshop, “What Price the
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Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad (Media, SOAS)
The New Iranian Cinema: The Traditional Clergy under Social Critique
Iranian cinema has played an important role in the social critique of state
ideology in Iran both before and after the 1979 revolution. In the 1960s and the
1970s, the filmmakers’ criticism was aimed at the state’s modernisation ideology
and its devastation of traditional lifestyles. In the post-revolutionary period,
filmmakers have critiqued from a modern perspective the traditionalisation of
Iran under the ayatollahs. I argue that the engagement of the filmmakers with
modernity during the post-revolution period demonstrates that modernity need
not be viewed negatively in this context. While it is a singular phenomenon of
Western origin, once modernity spread to non-Western societies it has become
indigenised and has hence diverged from the Western trajectory and therefore its
examination requires attention to the local socio-historical context. It is precisely
this context in Iran which is the focus of my paper.
Ayelet Zohar (Slade School of Fine Art, UCL)
The Paintings of Ibrahim Nubani: Modernism, Assimilation and Schizophrenia
Ibrahim Nubani (1960- ), is a Palestinian-Israeli artist, born to a Palestinian
family in Kafr Makr, a graduate of B’zalel Academy of Art and Design in
Jerusalem, who later represented Israel in various prestigious international
shows (Venice Biennale 1986, group exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New
York 1990, etc.)
In 1989, after his great success in the local and international scene, and a short
time after the outbreak of the first Intifada in the occupied territories (late 1988),
Nubani underwent a schizophrenic crisis, left the art scene, returned to his
parents’ village in the northern part of Israel, and disappeared from the public
space altogether. Schizophrenia – normally defined as a situation in which it is
impossible for a person to relate to the reality outside, becomes a very
problematic diagnosis, in this case, when the reality proves itself to be
incoherent, sending double messages, and causes a person to lose a solid and
clear point of reference to his own circumstances.
This crisis, and its result – a series of recent paintings (from 2000 on)—is what I
am interested in. My reading of Nubani’s personal crisis and his art, is of a
position of a process of internalization of the “schizophrenic reality” he was born
into as a Palestinian–Israeli, causing an impossible reality to cope with. As a
result of this crisis, Nubani deserted the route of assimilation and modernization
(on the terms and style of Jewish-Israeli society), and chose to identify with his
non-Modernist Palestinian background. Accordingly – he changed his painting
style from highly geometrical decorative abstract designs and patterns, into
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expressive oriental emotional schemes of colours and composition, with strong
iconography that links him back to his Palestinian roots.
In my paper I discuss the distortion of one’s personal identity as offered by the
Modernist experience, the denunciation of Modernism, and the return to relative
segregation, as a Post-Modern critical point of view.