Legal Modernism

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In the past twenty years or so, the scholarship in modernist studies has made an increasing play on the disparate incommensurability of various ‘modernisms’. That this is the case is hardly surprising, given that no writer or artist ever defined themselves as modernist: the term, rather, being subsequently imposed upon, amongst others, the vorticists, imagists, futurists,
expressionists and impressionists of the early twentieth century. But contemporary critical work has also had a constitutive role to play in the creation of such plurality. The stretching of temporal and geographical borders together with the focus upon critically undervalued, popular and middlebrow writing has led to a significant growth in modernist studies – indeed Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz write that ‘were one seeking a single word to sum up transformations in modernist literary scholarship over the past decade or two, one could do worse than light on expansion’.1 A key part of this expansion has been the detailed exploration of the conditions which allowed for modernisms and shaped their precise formulation, with a significant example of such being the legal world. Recent work thus lights on the importance of libel, obscenity and copyright law to the formation of early twentieth-century literary experimentation.2 This last term, experimentation, is key, for what continues to unite much of the logic surrounding the concept of modernism is the sense in which it offers a radical commitment to change. Famously, this move was often articulated as a radical break with tradition. Ezra Pound’s call to ‘make it new’ is as emblematic, here, as Virginia Woolf’s request for ‘new forms for our new sensations’.3 The palpable sense that many writers had of performing a ‘break’ instigated a view of the literary artist as freed from convention (both literary and social) – not just the isolated genius of Romanticism but the politically significant smasher of codes. This chapter, then, is about how such change is articulated, and how a conceptualisation of law both informs and facilitates such articulation. Due to the restrictions on space it will advance this discussion exclusively through thinking about modernist prose writing, though this is not to say that similar phenomenon could not be identified in the poetry and drama of the period. It will begin by focussing upon a specific change: namely, the development of prose forms designed to express the problematic relationship between subjective experience and writing. Moving on to examine two modernist short-stories – William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’ and Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Settlement’ – the essay will conclude by pointing to the way in which modernist prose conceptualised its radicalism as a change in law.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLaw and Literature
EditorsKieran Dolin
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Print)9781108422819
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

Publication series

NameCambridge Critical Concepts
PublisherCambridge University Press


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