On Outka’s Viral Modernism

Viral Modernism | Columbia University PressI would like to start this brief meditation with a phrase from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. There, Fanon describes the colonial situation as one characterized by what he calls “atmospheric violence.” While Fanon is using the phrase here to describe the violence inflicted on the colonized, I think we might also recognize our current situation as one shot through by “atmospheric violence.”  We might quibble that Fanon is describing a wildly different situation, and this in undoubtedly true, but in the following I want to address how—particularly in the context of a pandemic—past texts and the way we read them, change, allowing us to think seriously about our current predicament, perhaps out of a need to make sense of what is increasingly an inscrutable situation. Aided by Elizabeth Outka’s incredibly timely study of the influenza pandemic, Viral Modernism, I will be discussing three modernist texts, The Waste Land, Mrs. Dalloway, and Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” As Outka argues, the way we read these texts change when we consider them in the light of the 1918 influenza pandemic. I would only add that the current pandemic will also have a profound change in the way we think about modernism.

Outka mounts an entirely convincing framework to analyze a number of modernist works through the lens of the 1918 influenza pandemic, but I would like to start with the one in which her argument is more tenuous, namely her reading of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Perhaps one of the most famous poems in the English language, the poem, with its apocalyptic tones, has been read as a text shot through by WWI and fears of global revolution. Outka however, present us with an interesting biographical detail: Yeats’s pregnant wife George had been sick with the pandemic virus two weeks before the composition of the poem. Outka grants that intentionality is out of the question here, and while her argument that the poem represents a kind of disembodied feverish state is somewhat muddled, her larger claim that the influenza pandemic has been erased by the foregrounding of WWI is entirely convincing. In the end, the biographical detail, beyond intentionality, points to the historical atmosphere created by the 1918 pandemic, and it is hard to disagree that the poem can be read not as a direct response to the outbreak, but perhaps as an indexical symptomatic document of the forgotten Spanish Flu pandemic.

Viral Modernism’s reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land is more exacting, and here the biographical detail adds complexity: Eliot’s wife Vivien had almost died in the midst of the pandemic, and Eliot himself succumbed to the virus. Indeed, we might see our current situation in Outka’s description of The Waste Land as “a miasmic atmosphere of failed vision, unseen deaths, silence, and failed communication.” Or elsewhere, when she described how “Eliot’s lines make logical sense…. when seen within a delirium context, evoking the splintering of thought illness could produce.” In other words, and this is the key point, there might be a relation between the splintered form of modernist poems and the state of delirium associated with the influenza pandemic. “Eliot’s aim to capture ordinary experiences that would otherwise be missed,” Outka writes, “was ideally suited for the elusive bodily and mental sensations the virus generated.”

I would like to close with what is perhaps Outka’s most convincing reading: her interpretation of Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” and Mrs. Dalloway. In a move that is sure to change we read the novel, Outka zeroes in on the way Woolf’s protagonist is described as frail and recovering from the virus. In her essay, Woolf calls for more novelistic engagement with the reality of disease, and this is echoed in her novel.  Woolf writes:


Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of angels … when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.


As Outka writes, Clarissa Dalloway’s battle with influenza is explicitly thematized:

At the start of the novel, she is seen by Scrope Purvis pausing on a London street corner; she is pale, “Very white since her illness,” her heart possibly compromised, “affected, they said, by influenza.”

Not surprisingly, Clarissa spends most of her time in her room, in a state of perpetual convalescence.

Woolf’s depiction of her character as one recovering from influenza evokes current fears about COVID’S long-term effects. And here I would only like to add that this evocation means that the way we read past texts in contemporary times is inevitably colored by the current pandemic. The virtue of Outka’s book (one written, amazingly, a year prior to the first detection of CORONAVIRUS) is that it helps us re-read canonical modernist text through a palliative lens, that is, it helps us see prior pandemic experiences that can help us make sense of our own ongoing battle with a viral atmosphere.

Recapitulation: Sediments of a Potential System (ΦΨω)


I. Substratum


(1) The singular fear/feat is the approximation to the object.


(2) The concepts flow, sperm-like, towards the singularity.


(3) The singularity is approached in a slouching procession, and it is ultimately the hypotenuse of the distance which becomes the objectified concept.


(4) The singularity is ultimately the abstract disillusionment of the Pythagorean theorem.


(5) We jot this down.


Which is to say that the pithy statements of Ecclesiastes might still be applicable: no barriers have yet been breached. The sex appeal of the epistemic break might be conjectured as an appeal to collective identification—a need for novelty and differentiation.

In this sense, time and space have always been conceptualized as a miasma of discrete coincidences. The epistemic break would therefore be an appeal to the higher delegates of futurity. “We saw the same things you are seeing,” they whisper, “this is how we was dealt [sic].”

The desire for trans-generational communication is expressed in the individual in the form of mysticism and a belief in divination. No need to rail against the priestly class here or to summon Nietzsche from his monastic abode in the Alps. It suffices to say that removing the veil is as old as the veil itself. A veiled woman, nervous about death, visits the man everyone fears and respects: she unveils herself. The man breaks the bones of a stag, burns the animal’s scapula, and by the art of scapulimancy reads the woman’s fate. Historicism might be the culprit here, the stultifying delegate of this higher court of appeals. It would be easy to blame Schleiermacher for his allegorical hermeneutics, but the line goes all the way back to Greek cultural anxieties.

Allegoreosis  (ἀλληγορία)


“Reading is dramatized not as an emotive reaction to what language does, but as an emotive reaction to the impossibility of knowing what it might be up to.”

– Paul de Man


 ‘Literal’ ether historial vndurstondyng techith what thing is don; allegorik techith what we owen for to bileue. Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) Isa. Prol.,.


II. Prefiguration


Geist—Hamlet’s Ghost—finds its resolution in the spark of a ganglial fold in Vienna, during the mirror stage of the 20th century.  The specter of biologism reaches a crescendo with Ernst Haeckel’s uncanny anatomical progressions. The idea that ontogeny replicates phylogeny sounds like vulgar Marxism to contemporary sensibilities; the same goes with Freud’s recourse to ethnography in Totem and Taboo. The Eurocentric arched eyebrow, The Golden Bough, incest, parricide, and the stench of formaldehyde emanating from the increasingly anthropomorphic embryos—everything reeks of obsolescence.

Freud: ultimate truth or desuetude? This is the doubt of the contemporary subject. In this sense, Ricoeur acts like a mediating Jesuit between querulous lovers. “Give him some credit, look at the way he builds his epistemology in between science and culture. Remember when he was still confused by the anatomic? Remember the evolving topologies and revolving economies? Where were you when Freud broke the dome of the sacred? I know, in utero.


 “Topic for poem—School Children &

the thought that life will waste them


perhaps that no possible life fulfill

their own dreams or even their teacher  s

hope. Bring in the old thought that

life prepares for what never happens.”

– W.B. Yeats, March 1926


III. Apocatastasis (ποκατάστασις )


Yet, the fully developed embryo—containing all of the creaturely atavisms in conflict with external, contingent demands—never completes the cycle of gestation. It can only remain in flux, in a state of constant oscillation between the possibility of abortion and the initiation into an Oedipal drama that has already begun—one that he must ultimately sublimate. Fully grown, the adult retains the dichotomous chrysalis of childhood: the shadow of an abortive death and the cost of symbolization.


“O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer


Are you the leaf the blossom or the bowl?

dance                    ‘s so

O dance where everything is finely done

How can we know

It seems that the dancer & the dance are one.


O dance, are footfall, shoulder, glittering

O blazing foot, O glittering glance”

– W.B. Yeats, June 14, 1926


The necessities of Ananke preclude the possibility of a resolution. The psychic apparatus, inscribed and encrypted in dichotomous symbols, sublimates this impossibility, ironing the creases pars pro toto. Analogy, metonymy or metaphor, are you mere parallelisms? Do I reify you when I address you as an object? Am I myself displaced when I construct you?

But we must not veer into the cul-de-sac of romanticism or regress to the solipsism of the preconscious Herr-Doktor. Let us stay recapitulating the gestation period as the inevitable recurrence of scientism and romanticism. This has long been understood. Two historical examples suffice: On the one hand, the Nietzsche of Nietzsche Contra Wagner rages against the atavistic excesses of The Birth of Tragedy, and yet accepts it as a youthful rebellion and as a developmental necessity in his system. Lukács, on the other hand, steeped in Marxism after regressing to the Mother in the object of Soviet Russia, renounces the youthful findings of his Theory of the Novel.  Who completes the circle, the deranged philosopher who allows or the orthodox critic in the garb of his censors? Only Ananke presumes to understand, and it is her impossibility that frames our referents. In scientific terms, Ananke is the control group—natural and unpredictable—and the artwork, under the aegis of play, is the experimental group. The artwork is safely regulated and symbolically accessible. In the encounter with the artwork the recapitulated subject re-creates the dreams of a lasting conflagration.


Post-stratum: Yeats continued to revise the poem after its publication in 1928. Cf. The Tower (1928) Manuscript Materials (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press), 2007

Loose Notes

While teaching during this fractured semester–via Zoom to be sure–I found myself taking notes in loose white pages. I would steal them from my printer and write down my thoughts as I got ready to teach my classes (two sections on “Immigrant Literature,” and one on “Challenges of Modernity”).

Going over this archive, I noticed the way these loose notes seemed to reflect the current pandemic crisis; a crisis  escapes traditional forms of representation. Philosophers, from Badiou to Agamben, have offered nothing but platitudes or–in the case of Agamben–paranoiac diatribes. 

Perhaps sharing our broken thoughts can be the beginning of new forms and renewed efforts towards conceptualizing the scale of this fracture. And so below I share a collage of these fragments, culled from my loose notes.





Too simple, predictable yet effective


Karma à tragedy    (Fractured)




what is the myth of modernity? what is the essential event in the constitution of the modern ego?


Intrusive thoughts




Death –?  Aging


“closer to the earth”


Wistfulness loneliness trapped


Is language cinematic?




Forms of life / forms of death




Nature as equalizer?


“hard to distinguish what is meaningful from what is not”


a dialogue/narration (feature not a bug)


* disappointment     mortality


Discourse of Power


Is there a way you could both tell us about your day and what you were thinking simultaneously?


Can we bend narrative forms in order to better understand our social and individual lives?


Is it possible to portray both the life of an individual and the life of a society simultaneously?


Cubist Narrative


Are there any Freudian elements in Fanon’s argument?


Contra Enlightenment


Description both of a local situation and “description of the world”?


Atmosphere –> Immunology




A shift in cultural pathology


How do we learn to desire?


What is desire in not an irresistible impulse to desire what others desire; to imitate the desire of others?


the loathed rival is a mediator


Metonymic freezing


We like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives…


We like to think of ourselves as ethical when we might be callous…


We like to think that art, culture, knowledge will make us more sensitive human beings but that is only half the struggle.


There is only a handful of physical traits, yet they are enough for infinite variability; you hear a friend’s vocal inflections in the mouth of a lover.




Colonial relations as a set of rules


Via Negativa

Control Group

Finding the full record of a life in the poet’s studio the day after they die, this is the literary critic’s imagined space. This attempt to find the writer’s body, his peculiar rhythm,  (“a certain drive, hidden and permanent, which sustains him and devours him…”)[1] remains at the center of the contemporary critic’s ultimate goal.

Alternatively, it remains to be seen if it would be possible to run an experiment wherein a group of writers, all embarking in different—yet equally grueling—conceptual edifications and wild machinations, could be gathered in a communal space, a kind of dormitory perhaps, where they could be closely monitored; cameras could be installed, blood pressure recorded. Each writer would in turn have another writer, an ethnographer, closely monitoring his everyday rhythms. Group A would be instructed to resist any rapport with their assigned objects of study, while Group B—maybe living in a separate building? —would receive no further instructions. One can hypothesize flashes of grievances, sexual hiccups, long-term liaisons arising, but most likely a complete breakdown in the scientific purity and reliability of this control group. On the other hand, Group A would also be compromised, since the very presence of the ethnographers would turn them into invading voyeurs, thereby contaminating the reliability of the data.


Yet all of this would be for show.


The real purpose of the experiment would be to develop a study of ‘how communities live together,’ but this would not be revealed to the scientists themselves, providing them with plausible (scientifically sound) deniability. Yes, in this experiment it would be the hovering black globes judging everything, accruing data in their surveils, crunching loopholes and splicing streams of electrons while one writer fingers his assigned watchman, and another berates her mute ethnographer for the silence of his affront. The machine would record all, the writing and the non-writing, the shitting farting and groping that gets lost in the margins of books, in order to provide the literature a complete theory of multiple, maximized, homeostatic living. With the exponential rate of discernment our recording devices have achieved it is safe to say that this experiment could be easily designed these days; perhaps it already has.

[1] Émile Benveniste, “Saussure after Half a Century,” in Problems in General Linguistics, 29.

On Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”

In their introductory remarks to a volume dedicated to a re-assessment of the work of Theodor Adorno and “the American dimensions of his thought” (Telos 149, Winter 2009), Russell A. Berman, Ulrich Plass, and Joshua Rayman point out that “since its beginnings in 1968, Telos has repeatedly turned to the work of Theodor Adorno, asking how his version of critical theory could cross the Atlantic and make sense in the United States.”

Indeed, Telos first published what would become one of Adorno’s most influential pieces of literary criticism in the American academy. I am speaking, of course, of the essay “Lyric Poetry and Society” [“Reder über Lyric und Gesellschaft], the English version of which first appeared in the pages of Telos in 1974, appended by a helpful introduction by its translator, Bruce Mayo.

As Mayo observes, Adorno’s lecture was originally delivered as a radio address in 1957. With the Cold War in full swing, and in a Germany still reeling from its Nazi past, Adorno threads lightly as he elaborates an argument which seems almost obvious to us as contemporary readers. Namely that the ‘universality’ of lyrical content is essentially social. Yet this is obvious only in retrospect, since as Mayo points out, the field of literary studies in post-war Europe and North America was allergic to ideological interpretations, emphasizing instead the self-containment of works of literature. Adorno’s tactic, therefore, is not to deny this interpretative framework, but to argue that close readings should also lead to larger historical, linguistic, and cultural claims.

“An important claim of Adorno’s argument,” Mayo writes, “is that New Critical methods—careful, sensitive readings of words on the page, attention to irony diction, shifts of tone and perspective implicit in the words—must lead ultimately to a full appreciation of a poem’s social, historical and economic being if applied with sufficient rigor” (Telos 20, Summer 1974). It is a move which brings to mind Adorno’s negative dialectical method, insofar as he claims that even the intuition that poetry is a refuge from the alienating homogeneity of modern society is itself social.

The breakthrough of Adorno’s argument, and the reason for the essay’s continuing relevance, is that his interpretive framework manages to advocate close readings of lyrical poetry even as he argues for a social interpretation of lyric poetry. Put another way, while the process of interpretation must be extracted from an immanent examination of the poem, and not merely imposed from the outside, in the depths of lyric poetry one finds a collective subterranean current.

Beyond this astute critical move, one which opens the floodgates to political interpretations of lyric poetry, Adorno also reinterprets the intentional fallacy by arguing that whether intended or not, the success of a work of art overcomes false consciousness. This Marxian reading of intention recalls Engels’s claim that Balzác was a bourgeois author who nonetheless wrote against his class interests. Offering crisp readings of a reactionary poet like Stefan George Adorno offers us a way out of the vexed problem of the relation between an author’s life, his beliefs, and his works. In this sense, a poem serves as an indexical referent to larger socio-political forces; it is a philosophico-historical solar clock, and in great poetry one not only hears an individual’s voice, but the voice of language and society making sense of their own contradictions.

Aesthetic Redemption

It’s hard to believe but another year is over, another decade, and in the case of academics and pedagogues in the increasingly shrinking humanities, the end of another semester.

Originally, I wanted to use this space as a sort of public-facing space where I could tease out ideas, and share the development of my current research project, and more broadly, my thinking.

This has proven to be extremely difficult. It’s hard to relay to people outside of academia just how much work we do, sometimes abstract, but often, menial and repetitive. This is not a complaint, merely a protest against those who deride academia as somehow beyond the reach of capital and labor.

So now that I have a little time I wanted to offer this ramble; to perhaps make a promise to myself that I will write more in this space.

I close this by mentioning an interesting interaction I had in my seminar on Literature and Exile. The students responded extremely well to Ocean Vuong’s new novel, which though not without its problems, is quite good, and teaches quite well.

Without giving too much away let me say that the novel is completely shorn of irony or any kind of postmodern playfulness. It is elegiac, searching; a work of deep mourning.

And we wondered: what does this refusal to engage in playfulness mean? Perhaps some kind of romantic revival, we concluded; it felt like something tragic and new; a book looking for aesthetic redemption.

Finally setting up a blog

I’lll use this space for writing short little snippets, since I know from personal experience  this is the longest time we have to pay attention to  a blog post

I’ll model my site after Stuart Elden’s awesome Progressive Geographies, where he keeps readers abreast about his new research, reviews, etc. Although you can also expect my own idiosyncrasies, rants, braggadocios, etc.

My computer is running out of power and I am in Chicago. The waiter tells me today will be warmer than usual; I’m celebrating this with some Huevos Rancheros.