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Peripheral Modernism and Third World Aesthetics


The past decade has borne witness to radical self-questioning and searching internal debate in literary scholarship. In the field of Comparative Literature, practitioners have been asking themselves whether the conceptual model on which their disciplinary enterprise was initially built is sustainable any longer in a world that is at once more complexly polyglot and, paradoxically, more deeply dominated by just one language – English – than ever before. In American Studies, the ideas of ‘Black Atlanticism’ and ‘Borderlands/La Frontera’, among others, have been instituted in order to challenge the nation-centredness of the discipline in its established modes, and to help reconfigure it along the lines of more global and more systemic perspectives. ‘English Literary Studies’ has long been in crisis, not just, as Raymond Williams pointed out as long ago as 1981, because the idea of ‘Literature’ no longer provides a stable evidentiary object of study, but because the idea of ‘Englishness’ – or, indeed, of ‘Britishness’ – is also problematical. As Williams wrote: ‘Is “English” then the language or the country? If it is the language, there are also fifteen centuries of native writing in other languages: Latin, Welsh, Irish, Old English, Norman French. If it is not the language but the country, is that only “England” or is it now also Ireland, Wales, Scotland, North America, Old and New “Commonwealths”?’ Meanwhile, an impasse has been reached in Postcolonial Studies, whose prevailing protocols, culturalist and third-worldist in temper, have recently been thrown into disarray both by the reassertion, under the sign of ‘globalisation’, of ‘the logic of unilateral capital’ (Samir Amin’s phrase), and by the manifest persistence of military imperialism, signalled, post-‘9/11’, by the American-sponsored invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Important and intellectually consequential new work has been produced, across the full range of literary studies, out of these still-unfolding internal debates and developments. Under the renewed rubric of ‘world literature’, there have been moves to construct an inclusive comparativism, situating all literatures within an international rather than an abstractly universalising context, while attending to the particularities of each (Moretti, Prendergast, Casanova); or, alternatively, to ask whether the model of ‘Area Studies’ might not have more to offer literary critics today than the received model of ‘Comparative Literature’ (Spivak, Miyoshi, Calhoun). The revival and reconceptualisation of the notion of modernity, which has involved de-linking it from the idea of the ‘West’ and yoking it to that of capitalism, has helped to undermine approaches which involve the easy cataloguing of ‘alternative modernities’. Instead, attention is drawn to the production of a singular modernity, one that is nevertheless dissipated, dispersed and uneven in its various global articulations (Jameson, Harvey, Harootunian). This in turn has led to new work on modernism, concerned to rethink the relationship between avant-gardist cultural practice in Euro-America and the ‘non-West’  (Brennan, Forsdick, Gikandi, Kemedjio, Larsen, Marx, Torres-Saillant). In Postcolonial Studies, this has resulted in efforts to produce a ‘history of the present’ – a new reading, above all, of the twentieth century, liberated from the dead weight either of the Cold War or of a compensatory ‘Third Worldism’.


We aim not to attempt to synthesise the insights developed in the debates described above, but rather to establish a way of looking at the space opened up by them. Premising ourselves on the new work that understands modernity as representing the time-space sensorium corresponding to capitalist modernisation, we are particularly interested in what have been called ‘peripheral’ modernities – that is, the forms assumed by modernity in situations of so-called historical backwardness and under-development. But our ultimate interest lies less in the category of modernity per se than in that of modernism – we are chiefly interested in the aesthetic registration, and resistance to, the social logic of modernity. We are operating therefore with a preliminary tripartite conceptualisation – capitalism/modernity/modernism. In these terms, our intention is to produce a theory of ‘peripheral modernism’ (‘the aesthetic of “third-worldness”’ as we propose to call it), understood as the aesthetic generated within situations of peripheral modernity.

Writing in the 1930s, Trotsky had already formulated his ‘Law of Uneven and Combined Development’, based on his observation that in the ‘backward’ zones of the world system, the imperialist powers, in imposing generalised commodity production, had contrived to introduce capitalist social relations while at the same time ensuring the continuation of ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and promoting the maintenance of feudal social arrangements. The outcome, he wrote, was a contradictory ‘amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms’ – an urban proletariat working in technologically advanced industries existing side by side with a rural population engaged in subsistence farming; modern plants built alongside ‘villages of wood and straw’, and peasants ‘thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow’. Writing fifty years after Trotsky (of whom, rather extraordinarily, he makes no mention), Fredric Jameson develops this idea of ‘uneven and combined development’ into a veritable template for any consideration of modernity as a social category. Jameson refers to Ernst Bloch’s ostensibly oxymoronic formula, Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen [‘simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous’], by way of drawing attention to the experiential determinants of structured unevenness: ‘the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history – handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories of the Ford plant in the distance’. Jameson illustrates his argument through reference to Kafka’s The Trial, focusing on the juxtaposition in the novel of a thoroughly modernised economic order and an older, indeed archaic, legal bureaucracy and political order deriving from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Building on Jameson’s work, we propose to introduce the category of ‘third-worldness’ into the frame alongside those of capitalist modernisation (‘uneven and combined development’) and modernity. The term ‘Third World’, coined by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, initially arose within the context of a non-communist left-wing European searching for a ‘third way’ between capitalism and Stalinist communism. It was rapidly taken up by nationalist leaders in the colonised world who sought to promote their own brands of anti-colonialist politics while keeping Moscow and the ideological spectre of proletarian internationalism at arm’s length. At the historic conference at Bandung in 1955, leaders of the decolonising world (among them Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt and Sukarno of the host country Indonesia, with Tito of Yugoslavia as the sole European representative and Zhou-En-Lai [of China] as Guest of Honour) launched the Non-aligned Movement, explicitly mobilising and generalising the idea of the ‘Third World’ to refer to the colonial worlds of Africa, Asia and Latin America tout court. The ideologically resonant notion of the ‘Third World’ that was institutionalised and given an enduring material basis at Bandung has, in our opinion rightly, been criticised for its mystification of the co-ordinates that centrally structure the world system (Debray, Ahmad, Larsen). However, it is possible to defend the idea of ‘third-worldness’ against such critiques, and even to argue for its indispensability, by yoking it to received theories of imperialism and the world system (Worsley, Jameson, Denning). ‘Third-worldness’ then becomes a way of registering the existence of structural unevenness in the world capitalist system.

Our use of the idea of the ‘third-world’ therefore deviates quite sharply from received usages. We do not use the term to refer to the colonised ‘non-West’ alone, but also to describe zones of ‘backwardness’ within wider regions that are themselves relatively ‘advanced’ or highly modernised. We include within the compass of our enquiry, accordingly, social formations within parts of Europe (Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Turkey, Scotland, for instance) whose modern history has been marked by ‘peripheralisation’ and under-development. We also focus less on colonialism than on imperialism, emphasising the dynamics of capitalism and capitalisation rather than those of political domination or physical conquest. Finally, the historical purview of our use of the idea of the ‘third-world’ extends backwards (and possibly forwards, too) beyond the parameters of the periodisation commonly understood by the term. ‘Third-world’, as we understand it, would have to include the experience of modernity in late nineteenth century Japan and Italy and the southern United States, in early twentieth century China and what would become Yugoslavia, as much as in Burma, Indonesia, Brazil, Kenya, and Egypt under colonialism. 

Our project, following Franco Moretti’s suggestion that ‘form’ and ‘space’ must be thought together, will investigate whether there might be said to be a particular aesthetics of writing that corresponds to this structural and historically determinate condition of ‘third-worldness’. Our hypothesis will be that there is such an aesthetic (or that there are such aesthetics). We examine a very wide range of writings – those implied by the terms ‘magical realism’ and ‘Afro-modernism’, for instance; but also Caribbean writing informed by surrealism and ‘créolité’; the parabolic fiction of such Arabic authors as Munif, Tewfik el-Hakim, and Salih; the ‘peripheral’ modernist production of MacDiarmid, Vallejo, Kadare, Multatuli, Tanazaki, Lu Hsun, and Yashar Kemal, in addition to that of canonical writers, Kafka, Joyce and Faulkner; the work of such writers as José Rizal, N.V.M. Gonzalez and Ninotchka Rosca (from the Philippines) and Pramoedya (from Indonesia), which might be read, alongside better known work from the Indian subcontinent, for its modular unevenness. Our intention will be to consider the degree to which this teeming and heterogeneous body of work might be systematised through a theoretical intervention focusing on its formal properties and understanding these as the correlates of an equally systematic ‘third-worldness’.