Literary scholars have long valued open-endedness, unsettling, and disruption. And no field has been more committed to these values than Modernism. But today, as neoliberal economics undoes hopes of secure work, and as fossil fuels radically disrupt longstanding ecosystems, open-endedness is taking on a new political character. Unpredictability is not a source of pleasure and excitement for those who are anxious about finding their next meal or a safe place to sleep. Corporations praise freedom from state regulations and traditional norms and institutions. In this context, the biggest threat facing collective life is not oppressive stasis but disruption itself. So: what would it mean for us critics to revalue stability and predictability? Drawing on feminist and indigenous thinkers and formalist methods, I will argue that literary scholars can and should participate in imagining, designing, and building sustainable structures for collective life.
Caroline Levine is David and Kathleen Ryan Chair of the Humanities and Picket Family Chair of the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University. She’s the author of three books: The Serious Pleasures of Suspense (2003), Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (2007), and Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015), winner of the James Russell Lowell Prize from the MLA. She’s also an editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. Right now, she’s finishing a book on literature and sustainability.