This book aims to recover certain lost complexities of the interwar period. It argues that the 1920s, in particular, were a time of both postwar relief and wrenching anxiety about the next war. During that decade, “total war” was being adumbrated and theorized in the metropole while imperial powers quietly tested its techniques in colonies and mandates. Meanwhile, some of the interwar period’s most innovative writers struggled either to find literary forms for warding off total war or to mount resistance despite the next war’s seeming inevitability. Tense Future also finds elements of the Cold War emerging not in the year 1945 but in the twenties, which saw pre-nuclear formulations of deterrence strategy, postulations that sovereignty’s master temporality was entre deux guerres, and a steep rise in fears that modern warfare threatened not only written archives but literacy itself.
The introduction, “Traumatic Earliness,” opens with three examples of uncanny arrival, three subjects who recognize an awaited catastrophe when it comes despite its absolute unprecedentedness in their experience. These examples lead to an elaboration of what urbanist Lewis Mumford calls, in the third instance, a “collective psychosis,” a psychic wounding produced by the anticipation of violence, particularly in cities facing imminent bombardment from the air. The ensuing account of a pre-traumatic stress syndrome offers a corrective to the field of trauma studies, which has focused almost exclusively on the aftermath of mass violence. After outlining how the field might address trauma bidirectionally, I connect my model of traumatic expectation to allied work in the space of “critical futurities,” including nuclear criticism, queer temporalities scholarship, and histories that seek to reemplot or reactivate futures past. I then address the historiography of the interwar period, suggesting we approach its “betweenness” as both constructed retroactively and experienced by many historical actors in real time. The introduction ends with a discussion of the weak theory of modernism now structuring the field of modernist studies, and of weak theory’s special suitability for opposing total war, that strongest of strong theories.
The book’s body chapters fall in two parts. The first develops a critical account of total war discourse and addresses the resistant potential of acts, including acts of writing, before a future that looks barred or predetermined by war. Part two shifts the focus to long interwar narratives that pit both their scale and their formal turbulence against total war’s portrait of (p.318) the social totality, producing both ripostes and alternatives to that portrait in the practice of literary encyclopedism.
Chapter 1, “On the Partiality of Total War,” uncovers the first uses of the expression “la guerre totale” in 1916, in Léon Daudet’s far-right French wartime journalism, and tracks the concept forward through interwar air power theory to present-day military historiography. Analyses of internal Royal Air Force material and 1920s RAF air shows in England and Iraq bring to light connections between total war and colonial violence and the mediating role of race in these linkages. The chapter’s broad analysis is wound around the armature of a complex interwar figure: L. E. O. Charlton, the RAF officer who, having set out for the Iraqi protectorate in 1922 (with a new copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses under his arm, no less), resigned from his post a year later to protest British bombing policies in the region. Chapter 1 concludes with a discussion of Charlton’s subsequent air power writings and his imperial fiction, Near East Adventure (1934), a story about a pair of British runaways who are given shelter by Bedouins and are the sole survivors of an RAF raid that kills their hosts. The apparent contradictions between Charlton’s conscientious objection and his later air power advocacy, I argue, help make visible the imperial system of differential legal protection and violence exposure that was cemented by Britain during the interwar period.
Chapter 2, “Perpetual Suspense: Virginia Woolf’s Wartime Gothic,” reads a constellation of Woolf’s writings—particularly “The Mark on the Wall”(1917), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Years (1937), and “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940)—as attempts to grapple with imminent, as opposed to bygone, military violence. In rejecting what she called “the thrall of plot,” Woolf condemned suspense less as a Victorian narrative convention than as a permanent condition of militarized geopolitics. At the same time, through a strain of her fiction I call wartime gothic, she experimented with ways to encode, thematize, and even transmit that geopolitical suspense. Yet while her diaries, essays, and fiction dwell on the air raid and cognate scenes of future-conditional violence, they do not plead for a release from suspense under any conditions. Instead, they explore the prospect of new collectivities, intimacies, and forms of expression under threat. And, in some of Woolf’s most radically feminist writing, they refuse a future unbarred on despotic, deplorable terms. By 1938, when Mumford was identifying a “collective psychosis” wrought by urban war anxiety, Woolf had spent the better part of twenty years attending equally to that condition and to its collective dimensions and ramifications, its way of both threatening and producing communal experience.
Chapter 3, “Fantasias of the Archive: Hamilton’s Savage and Jenkinson’s Manual,” extends the previous chapter’s analysis of dissidence in the face of an apparently foreclosed future. At issue here are two works published in 1922 and preoccupied with the relations among war, futurity, and the archive: suffragist Cicely Hamilton’s work of apocalyptic speculative fiction, Theodore (p.319) Savage: A Story of the Past or the Future, and the Manual of Archive Administration by Hilary Jenkinson, who was then Deputy Keeper of the British Public Records Office. Although these works could not be farther apart generically, both forbear to instrumentalize the present in the name of either tradition or posterity. Instead, they advocate celibacy (marital and reproductive for Hamilton, historiographic for Jenkinson) as a desire in and for the present. The chapter’s frame identifies these two works as interwar genre-mates and forerunners of two types of apocalyptic fantasia more commonly associated with the Cold War: one that imagines the persistence of humanity and the extinction of the archive, the other envisioning the extinction of humanity and the persistence of the archive.
Chapter 4, “Encyclopedic Modernism,” asks why the encyclopedia should have been so important a formal template for interwar writers embarked on long, formally variegated novels. Contesting the encyclopedia’s reputation as a monument to Enlightenment hubris, the chapter returns to Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s writings about their Encyclopédie (1751–72) to reactivate that project’s professed multivocality, self-contradiction, and obsolescence; its compensatory bent for prophecy; and its aim to safeguard against disastrous knowledge-loss in the event of natural or political catastrophe. These features, many of which persisted in early-twentieth-century encyclopedias such as the celebrated eleventh Britannica (1910–11), made the genre a powerful model for interwar writers undertaking comprehensive projects that did not default to epic’s militarized holism. The chapter aims to undo the conflation of epic and encyclopedic modes in influential studies of long-form narrative. Neither a synonym for encyclopedic fiction nor a form made defunct by the rise of the novel, epic emerges in my analysis as crystallizing the political logic of total war and therefore as the form most inviting refusal and immanent critique by works opposing that logic.
Chapter 5, “The Shield of Ulysses,” reads Joyce’s 1922 novel back into the wartime and immediate postwar years of its writing (1914–1921). Recent postcolonial readings of Ulysses have linked it to the Easter Rising and the Irish War for Independence. This chapter argues that the book also links colonial violence to modern warfare more broadly, climaxing in a blow given an Irish civilian by a British soldier against the “Circe” episode’s backdrop of apocalyptic urban devastation. Referred to by its author as “a kind of encyclopedia,” Ulysses engages repeatedly in outsized gestures of description, definition, and inventory under the twin signs of futurity and disaster. One object of this encyclopedism is war, which Joyce’s ostensibly peacetime novel conjures through its Homeric intertext, its historical allusions, its portrait of Dublin under militant colonial occupation, and its subtly anachronistic references to the paroxysmal years of its writing. These violations of diegetic time are not a bid to garner the kind of prophetic authority that is sometimes granted Ulysses. Rather, they contribute to a reading of the colony as avant-garde—as terribly ahead of the curve—thanks to uneven distributions of law and injury. When the colony is used as a laboratory (p.320) for emergent, expansive forms of violence, colonial reportage reads like prophecy in the metropole. This temporal breach is one of the many fissures Joyce’s novel traces in the social totality; together, they measure the difference between the coherentist world picture offered by Achilles’ shield in Homer’s Iliad and its critical counterpart in the shield of Ulysses.
Chapter 6, “War Shadowing: Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End,” opens with a brief discussion of Musil’s The Man without Qualities, whose setting in an infinitely protracted 1913 denies the inevitability of the First World War. Building on Michael André Bernstein’s and Gary Saul Morson’s work, I contrast Musil’s narrative and modal “sideshadowing”—his lighting up of possible but untaken roads—to Ford’s twitchier experiments in formal and technical sideshadowing. Where other critics see Parade’s End as a failed attempt at modernism in the declarative mood, I maintain that the work achieves a powerfully antitotalizing modernism in the subjunctive mood, not least in the way its final volume flips restlessly through a series of possible protagonists. The tetralogy’s formal heterogeneity—its amalgam of nineteenth-century marriage plot, realist social history, and transient modernisms—finds a diegetic counterpart in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Parade’s End transvalues from failed monument to resource: Ford’s protagonist keeps a running list of its many errors until he suffers traumatic amnesia on the Western Front and has to restore his lost knowledge by memorizing—what else?—the Britannica. The encyclopedia’s mistakes and inconsistencies, I argue, make it especially fit to portray the world comprehensively yet without an epic coherentism the war had made seem less credible than ever.
The conclusion, “Perpetual Interwar,” reads Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) as a novelistic antecedent to Tense Future. Adapting the formal strategies of Ulysses and its genre-mates to the hyperbolized frames of colonial genocide, species extinction, area bombing, and nuclear war, Pynchon’s novel surfaces what is often latent in its interwar modernist precursors: the links between metropolitan and colonial violence; the intimate if vexed relationship between total war and totalizing form; and the apprehension, well before 1945, of a traumatizing anticipation we still associate almost exclusively with the post-Hiroshima era. Where studies of peace and conflict tend to oscillate between the Kantian ideal of perpetual peace and the perpetual war supposedly ushered in by the twentieth century, Gravity’s Rainbow’s fixation on the 1920s and ’30s reads the Cold War moment of its writing as a perennialized interwar period, suspended between past and future-conditional global conflict and shot through with smaller conflicts that are denied the name and legal status of war. The book ends with a brief discussion of the interwar as the normative time of national sovereignty—as the temporality par excellence of a state defined by its unhampered claim to past and future monopolies on violence. Through what abnormal constellations of law, force, and time, I ask, might political collectivities hope to dwell in an alternative to perpetual interwar?