London Modernism Seminar – Saturday 11 May

The final London Modernism Seminar of 2012-13 will take place on Saturday 11 May, 11-1pm in Room G35 at Senate House. Please note that because of the bank holiday this is not the first Saturday of the month.

The theme of the seminar is socialism and communism and we are very pleased to welcome as speakers Matthew Taunton (UEA) and Ben Hickman (Kent). Matthew’s paper is titled ‘2+2=5: (Anti-)Communism and Arithmetic in Orwell, Koestler and Others’ and Ben’s is titled ‘”What is Objectively Perfect”: Poetic Realism and Utopia in the 1930s US Avant-Garde’. Abstracts and biographies of the speakers can be found below.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has attended the seminars this year. It’s been a good year for the seminar and we’re hoping to build on this success going into the next academic year.

Best wishes,

Suzanne Hobson, Queen Mary, University of London,
Tim Armstrong, Royal Holloway, University of London,
David Ayers, University of Kent, David Ayers,
Rebecca Beasley, Queen’s College, Oxford,
Helen Carr, Goldsmiths, University of London,

Ben Hickman (University of Kent), ‘”What is Objectively Perfect”: Poetic Realism and Utopia in the 1930s US Avant-Garde’

This paper will analyse the aesthetic and political tensions and possibilities engendered by the influence of reactionary traditions in American high modernism on two radical, communist poets of the 1930s.

Firstly, I will chart the development of Louis Zukofsky’s relationship with Ezra Pound, from its beginnings in the late 20s, through its crisis and eventual end in the later 30s. Zukofsky’s pained negotiation between Marxist-Leninist philosophy and a Poundian sense of literary tradition, and the problems created by their opposed ideas about history and politics, have much to teach us about the legacy of the Modernist avant-garde in relation to vanguard politics. The paper will first perform a correction of revisionist histories of Zukofsky’s involvement in communist aesthetics during the Depression, before going onto explore the conflicting impulses, in his Objectivist poetics, between a materialist art of objectives and a transcendent notion of the poem as object. From here I will present Zukofsky’s ‘Mantis’ poems as his fullest achievement in reconciling and capitalising on these various dichotomies.

Secondly, I will investigate the influence of T. S. Eliot’s mythical mode on Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 The Book of the Dead, an extraordinary documentary epic recounting a contemporary Union Carbide mining disaster. After briefly surveying the reception of Eliot in radical literary circles in the 1930s, I will investigate the debt of Rukeyser’s poem to The Waste Land, but more significantly its conscious dialogue with it. Specifically, I will outline the strategies by which Rukeyser exploits but simultaneously attempts to invert various Eliotic priorities, including that of the past over the contemporary, male fertility over female fertility, and ahistorical myth over political agency.

Ben Hickman is Lecturer in Modern Poetry at the University of Kent, having studied at Kent and University College, London. His John Ashbery and English Poetry came out last year with Edinburgh University Press, and his new book, entitled Poetry and Real Politics: Crisis and the US Avant-Garde, will be published next year, also with EUP.

Matthew Taunton (University of East Anglia), ‘2+2=5: (Anti-)Communism and Arithmetic in Orwell, Koestler and Others’

Why did British writers, when they wrote about the Soviet Union, often deploy the imagery of numbers, arithmetic and mathematics? This paper scrutinises a number of such instances, including Orwell’s famous use of the equation “2+2=5” in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Koestler’s fascination with Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of prime numbers in The Invisible Writing. These are put into relation with a number of instances in less celebrated works where questions of number or of mathematical reasoning are politicised by being applied to the Soviet Union.

The paper proposes to situate these literary representations in relation to three key debates that intersected in interesting ways. Firstly, a debate about utilitarianism’s attempt to quantify social goods and the romantic rejection of that attempt; secondly, a debate about the philosophical foundations of mathematics (which involved Peano, Russell, Wittgenstein and Heidegger); and finally, a debate about the relation between mathematics and dialectical materialism, which involved key British and Soviet scientists and mathematicians and reflected on the position of science under Communism.

Taking my cue from recent calls (by Alain Badiou, Steven Connor and others) for a rapprochement between the humanities and mathematics, I will argue that this was a period in which numbers and arithmetic were profoundly politicised—and frequently anathemised—in literature.

Dr. Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he will be taking up a lectureship in September. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters as well as his monograph Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), and his present research project explores the cultural resonances of the Bolshevik revolution in Britain. He is associate editor of Critical Quarterly.