Modernist Fragmentation and After

  • September 29-30, 2016
  • 106 McCormick
  • Princeton University

Fragmentation is an inescapable aesthetic technique of 20th- and 21st-century literature and art, overdetermined as a figure for both social processes of alienation and atomization and the psychological interiorization of these processes. “Modernist Fragmentation And After” seeks to interrogate this category from the perspective of classical reception and history, examining modernist experiments with fragmentation as a formalization of problems of artistic representation while also investigating the deployment of this technique as a dominant aesthetic mode of receiving and adapting the cultural products of Greek and Roman antiquity.

Fragmentation as a mode of composition rather than an accident of the historical process of preserving literary and material artifacts has, of course, a significant history before its assumption in modernism, which the theorist and historian of Romantic literature John Beer has adumbrated. Beer suggests that the Romantic compositional treatment of the fragment tracked the developing 18th-century European investment in the past as a “locus of feeling” as exemplified in interests in architectural ruination and broken statuary. Thus the post-Romantic voice of Rilke’s famous sonnet on a headless ancient Greek statue of Apollo exemplifies the paradox whereby the fragment takes on an independent aesthetic interest beyond its ruination that depends on a lost and imagined whole. Rilke’s poem also points up the origins of the aesthetic interest in fragmentation as reflecting on the loss of a classical past. These meditations prefigure the programmatic and widespread modernist interest in fragmentation: when Eliot in the final lines of the Waste Land writes, “These fragments have I shored against my ruins,” he both offers a program of interpreting his poem through the technique of synthesized fragmentation and gestures towards the dominance of this and related techniques in the work of his contemporaries, as seen in the poems of H.D. and Pound and the disjunctive prose compositions of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and others. While these moments of fragmentation frequently reflect on and adapt the cultural products of classical antiquity—conceived of in such terms—they do so in complex and contradictory ways.

This conference seeks to address the historical circumstances that rendered fragmentation a dominant aesthetic and analytic mode of modernist engagements with Greek and Roman antiquity. First, we encourage papers that address concrete instances of this engagement in fiction and poetry as well as theatre, dance, architecture and visual art. Second, we hope to investigate modernist fragmentation in its capacity as an aesthetic trope, and therefore encourage papers that either delve into its prehistory in Romanticism and other aesthetic movements of the 19th century or meditate on the transformations of this trope in postmodernist poetics and aesthetics. We thus aim to foster cross-disciplinary interrogations of this complex history, and invite abstracts from graduate researchers in Classics, English, Comparative Literature, Modern Languages, History, Architecture, Art History, and related disciplines. We also seek abstracts from artists that will illuminate dynamics of fragmentation in the history and practice of a given artistic medium.

Organized by Kay Gabriel (Princeton) and Talitha Kearey (Cambridge)