Here is a story perpetually made new: that literary modernism constitutes an aesthetics of shock. From the onslaught of the city, to the perceptual shifts wrought by new technologies, to the disorienting chaos of war, modernism—in this perennial narrative—mediates the psychological wreckage of global modernity, abstracting its eruptive force into stylized literary experiments. Not least as a means of cushioning the blow. As Walter Benjamin argued in his 1939 essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” at the heart of the modernist lyric may be the “shock defense,” a way of parrying psychic disturbances by transmuting them into self-contained poetic moments. Rooted in the Freudian insight that preparedness for shock dulls its perception, Benjamin’s essay places trauma and its mitigation at the center of modernist practice. While modernists aimed for formal and perceptual innovation, modernist historiography largely suggests that they did so by preparing not to be shocked, channeling experiential assault into controlled forms of destruction.
Yet as Kate Stanley’s Practices of Surprise in American Literature After Emerson elegantly contends, this narrative of modernism has obscured the important ways in which modernists actively and creatively cultivated the unforeseen—in its most positive valences—as central to their compositional praxis. Against the critical tendency to read modernism’s destabilizing experiments as a monolithic response to the experience of modernity as trauma, Stanley maps out a counter-tradition of modernism emanating from Emersonian pragmatism, a mode of generative indeterminacy and “structured openness” to the world. For Baudelaire himself, as well as for the writers and artists to which Practices of Surprise lovingly attends—Henry James, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, and John Cage—Emerson provided a model of creative surrender to the unpredictable currents of experience, and to the transfiguring potential of the fortuitous surprise. Recovering this transatlantic Emersonian legacy, Stanley’s study maps a lineage of modernist practice that inherits and extends Emerson’s emphasis on self-effacing receptivity to the unknown. “The one thing we seek with insatiable desire,” Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay “Circles,” “is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.”1 Moving away from the Benjaminian emphasis on shock, Practices of Surprise reminds us of the ways in which modernists desired, embraced, and indeed practiced radical uncertainty, drawing new and more expansive circles at every incalculable turn.
To be surprised in an age of trauma, as modernists well understood (and as they imbibed from Emerson), required sustained and cultivated habits of mind. Shifting the dominant logic of much of the historiography, Stanley’s study centers surprise not as an unlooked-for disturbance—the experience of being buffeted by the contingencies of the world—but as a sudden affective recognition sought and prepared for through an active training of the attention. Modernist surprise, Stanley contends, is a function of disciplined preparation—a mode of reception to the unexpected that careful reading and thinking with others might enable. Through each of her readings, Stanley elucidates pragmatism’s embrace of contingency and “adaptive precariousness” as it served modernism’s broader disruption of conventional aesthetic forms (24). At the same time, she demonstrates how pragmatism comprised (and continues to comprise) a kind of relational ethics, wherein formal and prescriptive dogmas might be tenderly loosened, and through which art might become a collective inhabiting of uncertainty.
Practices of Surprise, in other words, offers surprise as a methodological as well as an ethical and (perhaps most surprisingly) pedagogical imperative. As Kristen Case points out in her essay “Recovering a Pragmatist Pedagogy,” at the heart of Stanley’s study is the enactment of pragmatism as a pedagogical practice, a way of reading and teaching that celebrates creatively honed modes of reception and lively, intersubjective encounters. Asking us to train our attention on this often-overlooked pragmatist pedagogical inheritance—one reiterated and sustained in classrooms but rarely circulated in print—Stanley offers a distinctly alternative critical genealogy, at odds both with the hermeneutics of suspicion and with its various agonists. As Case asks, “What might the discipline of literary studies look like if, rather than hemmed in by a picture of reading as ground zero for the anxiety of influence, it circled around an Emersonian scene of generative reception?” Writing in and about a pragmatist lineage that fundamentally refuses the distinction between criticism and pedagogy—and that foregrounds iterative practice as central to both—Stanley lays out a ground for reading founded not in Oedipal struggle but in mutually transformative acts of recognition and exchange.
This is a fundamentally reparative venture—an effort to recover modernism’s improvisatory spirit, its cultivation of the enlivening surprise over and against (and in the midst of) sense-deadening shock. As each of the essays in this forum take up in different ways, Practices of Surprise both extends and at times usefully destabilizes the “optimistic theodicy” that has haunted pragmatism in the Emersonian strain. While inspiriting precisely the kind of generative openness that Stanley recovers in modernist practice, pragmatism’s sanguinity in the face of radical uncertainty has for many critics made it a difficult language through which to confront structural and institutional forms of violence and constraint. Taking up this abiding tension, Case offers Cornel West’s elaboration of “prophetic pragmatism,” which (in Case’s terms) tempers the “comfortable optimism of white pragmatist thought” with a more straightforward and thorough confrontation with the tragic. Perhaps especially in her reading of the atmospheric turbulence of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), Stanley signals the limits of pragmatism’s embrace of precarity as a philosophical comportment in the face the very real precarity wrought by structural racism and misogyny. At the same time, in her response to Case, Stanley insists on the “spirit” of pragmatism as an epistemological and pedagogical sanctuary, one where real risks might nevertheless be confronted and shared in the vibrant laboratory of the classroom.
In a similar vein, Mary Esteve asks whether Emersonian pragmatism’s emphasis on ambivalence and endless deferral might have enabled—or even constituted—a falling away from concrete ethical and political commitments in favor of an aesthetics of uncertainty. As Esteve contends, the pedagogical lineage of pragmatism that Stanley elaborates tends to obscure an institutional history that privileged experience at the expense of political belief and actionable intervention. Taking up the centrality of Richard Poirier to Stanley’s own inheritance of pragmatism, and recalling Poirier’s foundational role in the development of Harvard’s Hum 6 course, Esteve points to the way that the institutionalization of pragmatist pedagogy may have helped reify aesthetic detachment and political quietism as norms of academic engagement. At stake in Esteve’s essay and in Stanley’s response are competing understandings of the relationship between pragmatism’s carefully honed modes of perception and liberal democracy’s (at least rhetorical) demand for rational judgment and deliberative action. These understandings emerge through divergent readings of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, which interrogates the crisis of global climate change through the entanglements of perception, cognition, and intervention. While Esteve reads the novel as a scathing critique of romantic sublimity in the face of pending global catastrophe, Stanley notes the novel tracks precisely the challenge of integrating rational knowledge of climate change with what it feels like to experience it, contending that the novel’s attention to pedagogy is animated ultimately by a pragmatist ethics of care.
In one of its central moves, Practices of Surprise insists on the paradoxical ways in which surprise is “facilitated by preparation”; surprise, in this model, is a function of rigorously disciplined practices of awareness and attention (4). Yet as Alex Benson suggests, there are different ways to approach the relationship between surprise and discipline, particularly when we expand beyond Emerson to consider other nineteenth-century thinkers of surprise. Reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, for example, Benson points to the intimacy between surprise and paranoia; Douglass describes learning to “expect” surprise assaults from the overseer, a kind of disciplined awareness and anticipation necessary for surviving chattel slavery. Echoing Case’s call for tragedy as a potential counterweight to Emerson’s insistence on “optimistic theodicy,” Benson asks, “What does Emersonian surprise look like when what we set it against is not Benjaminian or Freudian shock . . . but rather the moral shocks, the sentimental appeals, of Emerson’s lifetime?” If, as Benson signals, Douglass and other abolitionists aimed for the shocking facts of slavery to be morally instructive, what is gained and lost by a reparative embrace of Emersonian surprise? Taking up this invitation to reexamine Douglass’s own scenes of instruction, and particularly moments of shared reading that constitute the most hopeful moments of his Narrative, Stanley’s response contends that “Douglass’s reparative hope . . . proves to be as much a matter of survival as his paranoid vigilance.” Making room for genuine surprise amidst such compulsory vigilance becomes an important measure of what it means to be free.
Alicia DeSantis takes up the paradox of preparing for surprise in a different vein, arguing that to move beyond the critical context of modernism is to understand such preparation as the most ordinary of experiences. As DeSantis suggests, “the concept of a form of discipline designed to be openly responsive to contingency is not only non-contradictory, it’s in fact familiar—from baseball to baking, ceramics to sex.” DeSantis juxtaposes this more familiar version of paradox with the specificity of literary paradox as the fundamentally unresolvable work of interpretation, and places this latter form at the heart of Emerson’s restlessly oscillatory and often circular metaphors (part of what makes them so challenging for undergraduate readers). In doing so, DeSantis presses on the distinction that Practices of Surprise makes between the kind of rarefied paradox that the New Criticism installed as central to the very definition of the literary object, and the kind of paradoxes that pragmatism embraced as the bridge between literature and everyday experience. New Criticism and pragmatism part ways, Stanley argues, “at precisely the point that the New Critic installs the concept of paradox as a core tenet of close reading,” turning the contingencies of interpretation into “a preformulated program and a prescribed procedure” (40). As both DeSantis’s essay and Stanley’s response suggest, the pragmatist paradox becomes valuable insofar as it exceeds the self-enclosed system of critique to become “a program for more work.” Or as Stanley puts it, “whether Emersonian paradox opens up or shuts down new paths for thinking depends on whether our ‘interpretive oscillation’ ultimately moves beyond itself.”
The question of how pragmatism moves in and beyond paradox into collective action—indeed into something like mutual care—is perhaps the abiding concern in each of these essays, as it is in Stanley’s book. In the forum’s final essay, Lisi Schoenbach describes a divide within pragmatist thought between “problem solvers” and “paradoxical thinkers.” As Schoenbach suggests, problems solvers (embodied by John Dewey and Richard Rorty) approach pragmatism as a set of conceptual tools and values meant precisely to intervene in the endless deferral of decisive action as Esteve describes it, while paradoxical thinkers (including Emerson, Richard Poirier, and many of the figures on which Practices of Surprise dwells) embrace pragmatism as a mode of expression—a poetics of uncertainty. Pragmatist poetics offers a rich language for the affective experience of the revelatory surprise, and thus for the embodied and concrete ways in which language mediates a world of uncertainty. Yet as Schoenbach argues, “individual wonderment, reflection, and personal transformation (the key elements of the paradoxical approach to pragmatism) do not begin to address collective and institutional change across time, social experience, or the social world.” Schoenbach suggests we approach these divergent pragmatist traditions as complementary rather than oppositional; as she points out, for many of the thinkers who people Stanley’s book, artistic experimentation and collective action were deeply interwoven practices.
As Stanley’s response to Schoenbach underlines, what may surprise us most about paradox-minded pragmatism is its emphasis on collaborative world-building as uncertain, risk-filled, and absolutely necessary work. Returning us to William James’s account of pragmatism as “a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done,” Stanley signals how a pragmatist genealogy of modernism may help us better see the relation between the project of following experimental composition to its unexpected, often surprising ends, and the necessarily improvisatory (if no less disciplined) work of social change and collective care. In an era of endlessly shared but unevenly distributed trauma, in which the iterations of state violence and social collapse evince the Benjaminian state of emergency as the very rule by which we live, Practices of Surprise helps us recover the transformative labor of surprise—labor in which the ends are not given, and are thereby not assured. Which is what makes Stanley’s emphasis on the classroom an instructive one; for it is there, she suggests, where practice opens onto new and surprising modes of relation, and where any truly reparative project might wish to begin.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 414.↩